The US Must Keep Its Word to Iran’s Persecuted Religious Minorities

By George, Robert; Swett, Katrina Lantos | Deseret News (Salt Lake City), March 10, 2018 | Go to article overview

The US Must Keep Its Word to Iran’s Persecuted Religious Minorities


George, Robert, Swett, Katrina Lantos, Deseret News (Salt Lake City)


Like many, we were troubled to learn that the U.S. recently denied refugee status to almost 80 people who are members of persecuted religious minority groups in Iran. Most are Assyrian and Armenian Christians; there are also small numbers of Zoroastrians and Mandaeans.

These people left Iran and arrived in Austria under the provisions of a special U.S. program aimed at providing a lifeline to persecuted religious minorities in Iran. Endangered people are pre-vetted while still in Iran, and in the past almost 100 percent of applicants were approved after arriving in Vienna. Yet, for no apparent reason, this group of pre-vetted refugees waited for well over a year in Vienna only to be told that their applications had been denied and that they had two weeks to leave Vienna — with their savings drained and nowhere to go.

What follows are the facts we know, what we do not know and what we ask of the U.S. government.

The State Department repeatedly has designated Iran as a “country of particular concern” (CPC) for its systematic ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom and its targeting of religious minorities. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson highlighted Iran’s religious freedom violations, especially the persecution of Christians and Baha'is, during the August 2017 launch of the State Department’s Religious Freedom Report. Vice President Mike Pence has eloquently advocated for persecuted members of minority religions, and the Trump administration has condemned Iran’s treatment of Christians and other minorities.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and the State Department have documented that Iran’s religious minorities face a horrible array of abuses, including severe physical and psychological mistreatment, harassment and surveillance, sham trials and imprisonment on absurd charges related to their religious practices, and in some cases they have faced death. Imagine the terror of life under a regime where you can be charged with “corruption on earth,” “propaganda against the system” and actions against national security simply for seeking to peacefully live out your faith.

We also know that the abysmal conditions for Iranian religious minorities prompted Congress in 2003 to expand the Lautenberg Amendment, which expedites refugee resettlement in the U.S., to include religious minorities from Iran. (The amendment originally focused on resettling in the U.S. of Jews and evangelicals from the former Soviet Union. This aspect of the law continues unabated.)

After negotiations with the Austrian government, the State Department created a program through which the Austrian embassy in Tehran issues transit visas to certain religious minorities to travel to Vienna, where they can be safe while their cases are processed for refugee resettlement in the U.S. (This is necessary because there is no U.S. Embassy in Iran.) Before their arrival in Vienna, these people must undergo a lengthy security clearance, with additional security checks conducted while they are in Vienna. …

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