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U.S. Shouldn'’t Abandon Religious Minorities in Iran

Paul Marshall & Tina Ramirez

If Rep. Lamar Smith (R., Texas), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, does not quickly make some changes, one casualty of the current budget debates could be Iran’s heavily persecuted religious minorities. At issue is a humanitarian program authorized by something called the Lautenberg Amendment, a mechanism that has been renewed with bipartisan support for over 20 years.

Iran has persecuted its religious minorities since 1979, but in recent years, under Ahmadinejad, the repression has increased. In April, seven leaders of Iran’s Baha’i community were told that their 20-year prison sentences, previously reduced by an appeals court, had been reinstated; hundreds of Christians have been arrested in the last few months; and Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani faces a possible death sentence for apostasy.

Iran has been certified under the U.S. International Religious Freedom Act as a “Country of Particular Concern” because of its religious repression. Yet, as this crackdown on religious minorities escalates, Congress is about to end one of the few diplomatic tools we have to protect Baha’is, Christians, Jews, and others targeted by the regime.

The Lautenberg Amendment works like this: Since the U.S. does not have an embassy in Tehran, the Austrian government has been helping the American embassy in Vienna process refugee applications from Iranian religious minorities. The Austrians issue special visas that allow minorities into Austria so they can be interviewed by American officials; in turn, the Austrians seek assurances that applicants will not be left stranded in Vienna. The amendment establishes a clear standard for processing nationals and residents of the Islamic Republic of Iran, who, as members of a religious minority in Iran, “share common characteristics that identify them as targets of persecution.”

The Lautenberg Amendment does not, repeat not, require the expenditure of funds, nor does it increase the number of refugees admitted to the U.S. or change the requirements for admission. It simply provides a definition that helps assure third-party countries that the U.S. will have a consistent policy of processing Iranians that are members of a persecuted religious group.

Previously, the Lautenberg Amendment has been attached to the annual foreign-affairs budget and received widespread bipartisan support. However, despite pleas from religious organizations and members of Congress, Congressman Smith is resisting the program, since he believes he should have oversight over this and all other programs relating to immigration.

Smith’s colleagues have prevailed on him to have the program extended, but so far only to June 1, 2011. If is not renewed until 2012, or even if there is a hiatus, Austria may stop issuing visas and persecuted minorities will be trapped or forced to pursue more dangerous options in neighboring countries, which often shift refugees back to Iran.

There are currently at least 688 Iranians who have begun the refugee applications process and who may remain trapped in Iran unless the program is renewed, and this number is increasing. If Lautenberg is not renewed, then Iranian Baha’is, Christians, and Jews will not only have to flee to countries bordering Iran, but they will also have to face the United Nations, which is the refugee gatekeeper and is frequently hostile to non-Muslim applicants.

At a time when the Middle East is in ferment, this is an opportunity to support human dignity and religious freedom. Those who support religious liberty should press Congressman Smith to end his opposition.

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