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On Nowruz, Iranians celebrate new year, while Americans ask for captives

On the occasion of the Persian New Year – the traditional Iranian holiday that coincides with the beginning of spring — the Iranian mission to the United Nations today helped organize a panel discussion to highlight the importance of nature. Entitled "Nowruz and the Earth: Harmony Between Culture and Nature," the panel discussion drew together ...

On the occasion of the Persian New Year – the traditional Iranian holiday that coincides with the beginning of spring — the Iranian mission to the United Nations today helped organize a panel discussion to highlight the importance of nature. Entitled "Nowruz and the Earth: Harmony Between Culture and Nature," the panel discussion drew together U.N. officials, scholars and environmentalists. A delegation from Iran’s government also attended the event, which was held at the Millennium U.N. Plaza Hotel. A separate observance of Nowruz was scheduled at the U.N. General Assembly Hall for Monday evening.

"Norwuz apparently is one of the oldest celebrations on the Earth," according to a press statement issued by Iran’s, Afghanistan’s and Tajikistan’s U.N. envoys. "To commemorate Nowruz also means to promote life in harmony with nature, natural cycles and sources of life." The main task of the panel, according to the statement, is to "elaborate on the orphic interrelation between"  (in other words, discuss the links between) Nowruz and "International Mother Earth Day," which is also officially recognized by the U.N.

But a group of leading environmentalists and scholars, including Steven Cohen, executive director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute and Bill McKibben, the author, issued an appeal to Tehran to release two American hikers, Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer, who were detained nearly 20 months ago while crossing the border from Iraqi Kurdistan into Iran. The group said the two men have devoted their lives to promoting environmental causes. Iranians authorities detained the two men in 2008, alleging they had hiked illegally into Iran, and accused them of espionage. Baeur’s fiancé, Sarah Shroud, who was arrested with the two men, was released last year.

"Josh and Shane have done nothing wrong. They had no intention of approaching the unmarked border with Iran…while they were hiking beyond a beautiful waterfall in Iraqi Kurdistan," the letter stated. "This week a delegation of Iranian environmentalists is visiting the United Nations. We welcome this delegation to the United States as we believe the greatest challenge to our planet must be confronted as one world. At the same time, we do not understand why Iran is holding these two individuals, who have both made protecting the environment a priority in their lives."

Fattal, 28, a 2004 UC Berkeley graduate with a degree in Environmental Economics and Policy, taught courses on sustainable agriculture and other topics at the Aprovecho Sustainability Education Center in Oregon. He has led workshops in Guatemalan indigenous communities on how to build fuel-efficient, non-polluting wood-burning stoves. Tao Orion, a colleague of Fattal’s at Aprovecho, said he was a standout teacher who later went on to lead environmental teaching programs abroad, including in India, China and South Africa. She said the government of the Iranian delegation promoting environmental causes at the United Nations "definitely has one person in prison who could speak very eloquently about those topics."

The families and friends of the two captives say that during their nearly 600 days of detention Bauer and Fattal have met only once with their mothers, and had two brief telephone calls with family members. They contend that the two men were not spies, that they have professed their innocence in an Iranian court, and they have meant no harm to the Iranian government.

"We understand that Nowruz is a time for families to come together, reflect on the year that has passed and look with hope to the future," Bauer’s and Fattal’s families wrote in a separate appeal to the Iranian government today. "We extend our best wishes to everyone in the Islamic Republic of Iran, in the United States and around the world who celebrates this important occasion and, from the depths of our despair, appeal to the political and religious leaders of Iran to show compassion and make this a time when we too can at last be together again as families…We beseech the Iranian authorities to show compassion and end our heartbreak."

Bauer, 28, a freelance journalist who grew up in rural Minnesota has published stories in The Nation, Mother Jones, and the San Francisco Chronicle on politics and the environment. He once chronicled the environmental impact of war in the Darfur region of Sudan in a piece entitled "The Ecology of Genocide" that ran in The Environmental Magazine. He rides a bike, rather than a car, has been a vegetarian for more than a decade, and "practices conservation" at all times.

"We voice our support for Josh and Shane, who have demonstrated nothing but respect for the earth and their fellow human beings, and appeal to Iran for their immediate release from near total isolation, with almost no access to their families or their lawyer," according to the environmentalists statement. "If Iran is sincere in its commitment to environmental stewardship, it should release Josh and Shane and allow them to rejoin our common cause."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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