U.S. Zeal for Iran's Non-Muslims Faulted

Tehran, Iran - 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.

But leaders of Iran's non-Muslim religious minority groups say their communities are not mistreated by the Iranian government, whose actions are overseen by Shiite Muslim clerics. Instead, some Christian and Zoroastrian leaders say, their members are leaving mainly 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. "They give all those green cards to our people. Their only goal is to propagate the idea that Iran is mistreating its minorities."

The program is coordinated by the New York-based Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, or HIAS, which traditionally has helped resettle Jews in the United States. It received about $3.4 million in U.S. government funding last year to help non-Muslim minorities leave Iran.

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 Muslim ethnic minorities, including Kurds, Arabs and Baluchis. 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.

Despite the Iranian government's bellicose approach to Israel, Jews here say they can practice their religion freely. More than 25,000 Jews remain in Iran, community leaders say, making it the largest Jewish population in the Middle East outside Israel.

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."

HIAS was selected early this decade by the State Department to be the sole agency for processing Iranian minorities from Vienna, where it operates what it calls an "overseas processing entity." In 2004, Congress passed a law that made it easier for religious minorities from Iran to qualify as refugees.

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.

This designation "provides the substantive basis for running a refugee program for Iranian religious minorities," said Gideon Aronoff, chief executive of HIAS. "It speaks for itself that there are people who feel there is a need for this type of program to provide them with safety."

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."

Sitting in his dining room, he took another sip of cognac, which like all other alcoholic drinks is illegal for Muslims to consume in Iran, and smiled wearily. "I guess our reasons for migrating are no different from other Iranians who want to go. But as Christians, it's so much easier for us to leave Iran."

Betkolia, the Assyrian Christian parliament member, said he and his co-religionists were "freer in Iran than our Muslim brothers." The politician sat in his large office in the Assyrian club in Tehran. "We can drink, our boys and girls can mingle in our clubs freely and we can dance and sing," he said. "Muslims are not allowed to do those things in here."

Members of the Bahai faith, however, face arrest and other forms of persecution, according to U.S. and other officials. 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 respected as being members of traditional monotheistic religions.

In the Church of Prophet Joseph, one of the last 10 remaining Christian churches in Tehran, small events reminded Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Ramzi Garmo, 63, of the continuing exodus.

An older clergyman entered the archbishop's office. "Two more papers, bishop," the man said.

"Two more departures," Garmo concluded. He stamped the forms with his pastoral seal. "These papers prove that these youths are Assyrian Chaldean," he explained. "With this they can prove they are Christian during their interviews with HIAS in Vienna," Garmo said.

"Last Christmas my church was half-empty, while some years ago even the courtyard would have been full," said Garmo, who is originally from Mosul, Iraq. He started preaching in Iran more than 31 years ago, when his diocese included 30,000 people. Now there are 3,000. "People don't realize they leave for a country where men can get married to men, abortions are legal and divorces are easy," the archbishop said. "Being a Christian in America is much harder than being a Christian in Iran, believe me."

He glanced around the room, adorned with crosses and a portrait of Pope Benedict XVI, and fell silent. "But I should put myself in my congregation's place," he continued. "If an Iranian family can't afford to pay rent, is unemployed and is fearful of a war with America, who am I to forbid them from leaving?"

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.

"These rules date back to 70 years ago," Betkolia said, explaining that a similarly discriminatory statute on blood money was changed six years ago. "Those other laws are being reformed, but step by step," Betkolia said.

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."

But according to some Iranian authorities, that would not happen. "There is no way that the Iranian government would block members of religious minorities from leaving. This would cause an international outcry," said Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a former vice president and a Shiite cleric.

"If HIAS would open its doors for Muslims, lots of Iranians would leave for America. I guess the same would happen in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia," Abtahi said. "I am sad people of other faiths leave Iran. But for that to change, big problems which affect all Iranians need to be tackled."