Sunday 9 March 2008
Source: The Washington Post.
For decades the United States has funded an effort intended to help Christians, Zoroastrians and Jews escape persecution in Iran. Now some of their leaders are questioning American motives as sects that have endured here for thousands of years dwindle rapidly as a result of the migration.
Since the late 1980s, the U.S. government has made it easier for certain foreigners fleeing religious oppression overseas, such as in the former Soviet Union or Indochina, to immigrate to America.
Leaders of Iran’s non-Muslim religious minority groups say their communities are mistreated by the Iranian government, whose actions are overseen by Shiite Muslim clerics. Contrary to what is claimed by Iranian officials, their members are not leaving to take advantage of the program’s offer of a streamlined path to legal residence in the United States for a fee of $3,000.
«Christians and Zoroastrians leave because of unemployment, the bad economy, but these problems affect all Iranians», said Yonathan Betkolia, an Assyrian Christian leader and member of Iran’s parliament who holds the United States responsible for his community’s decline.
There are no reliable numbers on the sizes of those communities in Iran, a predominantly Shiite country of 65 million to 70 million that is also home to Sunnite minorities. According to a census taken in 1976, there were 420,000 non-Muslims in a population of nearly 34 million. Many non-Muslims fled the country after the 1979 Islamic revolution.
The State Department says 2,842 Jews have left Iran for the United States under the program in the past decade, compared with more than 18,000 members of other non-Muslim minority groups. More than 10,000 Iranians are waiting now to travel to Vienna, where HIAS facilitates their passage to the United States as refugees, according to a former U.S. official familiar with the program.
«The migration is a big, big problem for all non-Muslim minorities in Iran», said Kurosh Niknam, a parliament member representing Iran’s Zoroastrians, adherents of the pre-Islamic national faith that he estimates has shrunk by half since the 1979 revolution. «I wish everybody would come back to Iran, but I guess they won’t. It looks like there will be no Zoroastrians left in this country in 30 years.»
U.S. funding for HIAS’s work on behalf of Iranians has almost tripled, from $1.24 million in 2002 to $3.46 million in 2007, because of an increase in applications. The United States, which is at odds with Iran over its nuclear ambitions and role in the war in Iraq, classifies Iran as one of eight “countries of particular concern” because of what the State Department calls severe violations of religious freedom.
One Armenian Christian businessman in Tehran, who spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to jeopardize his family’s persecution-based application for legal U.S. residence, struggled to come up with a list of reasons to leave Iran. For more than a decade, he said, he had been looking for reasons to stay.
«One, our Iranian passports are useless; we need visas for every country. Two, the Iranian economy is destroyed. Three, my daughters are forced to wear the Islamic head scarf», he said. The 2005 election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the businessman continued, had increased the sense of uncertainty. «There are foreign threats, there might be a war. We feel pressure every day.»
Members of the Bahai faith face arrest and other forms of persecution. Followers of Bahaism, which was founded in 19th-century Persia and emphasizes religious unity and racial equality, are not allowed to practice their religion or study at universities. The government regards the faith as heretical, while Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians are tolerated as being members of traditional monotheistic religions.
Betkolia explained that two laws are problematic for members of minority religions in Iran. When a single family member converts to Islam, the Muslim is entitled to inherit all the family’s property. A second law prescribes that a Muslim who kills a non-Muslim cannot receive the death penalty.
The former U.S. official familiar with HIAS said persecution of non-Muslims continues. «The fact is that this regime treats religious minorities very poorly. It has acted viciously toward some of them», the former official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the program. «For Christians and others, it’s a lower grade of persecution. They’re treated like third-class citizens, day in and day out. If you are not a Shiite, you’re going to face severe discrimination», he said.
«Maybe people grow accustomed to it and may learn to live with it», the former official said. «But to say they’re living an okay life and they’re just economic refugees is ridiculous.»
The recent increase in applicants has caused a significant backlog, he said. «If the Iranians wanted to, they could stop cooperating and create trouble for the program.»