Images of a controversial administrative order went viral across Iranian social media in recent days, enraging large sections of the country's religious minorities. The internal document, a letter, announced new regulations at kindergartens operated by Iran's Rehabilitation Organization.
"Recruitment of religious minority members for any position at kindergartens is illegal unless those centers are exclusively hosting children of religious minorities," the letter states, bearing the signature of the director of the organization's Office for Children and Adolescent Affairs.
Amid the fast-paced rise of social media networks in Iran, documents of this sort are occasionally leaked, drawing reactions from the public and forcing officials to clarify the situation. The Rehabilitation Organization's internal directive quickly triggered angry reactions. One Twitter user called it "the latest case of injustice against minorities," while another called it "a disastrous decision."
The first formal protest came from Esfandiar Ekhtiari, who represents Iran's Zoroastrian minority in parliament. In a public letter, Ekhtiari addressed Mohammad Shariatmadari, the minister for cooperatives, labor and social welfare, to whom the Rehabilitation Organization directly reports.
The Zoroastrian parliamentarian expressed "surprise" at the "discriminatory" order and reminded the minister of the ninth paragraph of Article 3 in the Iranian Constitution, which advises against any form of discrimination and calls for equal opportunities. He also complained that his correspondence with the head of the Rehabilitation Organization produced no results. The parliamentarian, therefore, demanded that the minister "annul" the directive "so that we will no longer witness such inhumane and unethical decisions against the followers of divine religions."
Officials at the Rehabilitation Organization tried to explain the order to resolve the unease. It "applies to general and religious curriculum only, and there is no restriction on the art and sports courses for minority teachers," tweeted the organization's public and international relations chief.
The maneuvering continued elsewhere, as the head of the Department for Social Affairs tried to sugarcoat the contentious order. "At kindergartens hosting Muslim children, recruitment of teachers from religious minorities for non-religious courses is in no breach of the regulations," Habibollah Masoudi Farid told media. This announcement came after the minister ordered a "corrected" version of the directive, with a different tone. Some saw the decision as the government's "retreat" under public pressure.
Iran's religious minorities have long spoken out against the country's widespread discriminatory policies and practices. In particular, Baha'is, Zoroastrians and Sunni Muslims, among others, have found themselves targeted. The Islamic Republic considers Baha'ism an outlawed faith. Baha'is claim decadeslong persecution, and an unspecified number of them live in self-imposed exile. Sunni Muslims complain that they are not granted equal status to the Shiite majority. In Tehran, Sunni Muslims have tried for years to build their own mosque, but to no avail. They have instead resorted to holding religious ceremonies at prayer halls. In one recent case, security forces barred Sunni worshippers from holding Eid al-Adha prayers at such a spot last August.
As for Zoroastrians, perhaps the most controversial case is that of a city council member in the central town of Yazd. Sepanta Niknam was elected by popular vote in 2017, but he was suspended from office for nine months, per the orders of Ahmad Jannati, the hard-line secretary of Iran's Guardian Council, who offered a new interpretation of the electoral law. The Expediency Council ultimately resolved the protracted case and reinstated Niknam.
One social media user brought up the case of Niknam in light of the Rehabilitation Organization's new directive. "What made Niknam's reinstatement to the city council possible was not the constitution and religion, rather the public push and pressure, and we are able to repeat that," she wrote.
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