In its latest campaign of religious intolerance directed against the Baha’i community, Iranian security officials last month arrested scores of Baha’i youths in Shiraz solely on the basis of their religious faith, Human Rights Watch said today.

Baha’i representatives to the U.N. in Geneva told Human Rights Watch that Iranian authorities on May 19 arrested a group of mainly Baha’i youths who were teaching English, math and other non-religious subjects to underprivileged children in Shiraz. The authorities also arrested several other non-Baha’i volunteers at the same time but released them the same day without requiring bail. One Baha’i, under the age of 15, was released without having to post bail.

None of the 54 Baha’is arrested has been charged with a crime. As of today, three remain in detention while the others were released only after their families posted exorbitant bail.

“The arrests demonstrate how the Iranian government is subjecting Baha’is to religious persecution and discrimination,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Arresting people solely on the basis of their religious faith is a flagrant violation of freedom of belief and the freedom to practice a religion of one’s choice.”

Baha’i representatives told Human Rights Watch that on May 24, 14 of those arrested were released only after they surrendered as collateral property deeds. The next day the authorities released 36 more Baha’is after they posted financial guarantees or depositing work licenses as surety that they would respond to any court summons.

According to the principal representative of the Baha’i community to the United Nations, more than 125 Baha’is have been arbitrarily arrested since the beginning of 2005.

The U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Freedom of Religion or Belief, Asma Jahangir, said in March that she had received a copy of a letter dated October 29 in which the chairman of the Command Headquarters of the Armed Forces in Iran requested the Ministry of Information, the Revolutionary Guard, and the police collect information on Baha’i adherents. The letter stated that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei had instructed the Command Headquarters to identify members of the Baha’i community and to monitor their activities.

The October 29 letter came amid an anti-Baha’i campaign in the state-run press that began in September. Since then, the influential government-owned daily Kayhan has published dozens of articles attacking the Baha’i community and defaming their beliefs.

“The Iranian government is singling out a religious community that has a history of official persecution in Iran,” Whitson said.

The Baha’i community is Iran’s largest religious minority, with an estimated 300,000 members. Most Muslim religious authorities, including those in Iran, regard Baha’is as apostates who have deserted Islam rather than as practitioners of a legitimate faith. In Iran Baha’is cannot practice their faith in a public manner and are barred from higher education.

Human Rights Watch called on the Iranian government to release those Baha’is still in prison, restore the property of those forced to post exorbitant bail, and halt all discrimination and persecution directed against Baha’is.