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'You are not a person of concern to UNHCR'

International | Eight Christian converts face persecution in Iran-and bureaucratic hostility from Western governments and the United Nations

Issue: "Something's rotten," Sept. 30, 2000

in Van, Turkey - Three years ago in a secret house church near the city of Ahwaz, Iran, Akbar realized that his life was about to irrevocably change. On Jan. 11, 1997, he was baptized. As he stepped into the cool water of the impromptu baptismal pool, he shuddered. Once a faithful Muslim, he had covertly converted to Christianity,a life-changing act in any country but a dangerous one in Iran. Akbar had seen Christian converts hanged in the street and his relatives jailed and beaten for talking about their faith. Many non-Muslims in Iran are able to practice their faith,but converts are treated differently. "There is no persecution in Iran," a political science professor at Tehran University insists in an interview outside Iran. "It is not as bad as you reporters in the West think," he continued. (Still, he demanded anonymity.) But what about some 10,000 Muslims who have converted to Christianity? "Ah, that is different. They will die." Both Iran's Shariah (the religious law) and Iran's civil code punish "crimes against God" with death. So pervasive is the climate of fear that refugees are afraid to have their names published. As a result, all of the names of Iranian Christians in this article, including Akbar's, have been changed. Beginning in January 1998, police arrested him repeatedly; he realized they were building a case against him. He lost his job with the National Oil Company. His wife and daughter were threatened and harassed. Their middle-class existence was ending. On June 28, 1999, Akbar and his family boarded a bus with a single suitcase and a cover story about visiting relatives in Tabriz. The next day in Tabriz they met three of Akbar's Christian cousins, who introduced them to a Kurdish smuggler who promised to take them to Turkey. He charged them $1,250,a sum that devoured almost all of their savings. But would it buy their freedom? The family arrived in Van, a hot Turkish city near the edge of an undrinkable lake, on July 4, 1999. For the first time they felt free. They had made it, but the real ordeal was just beginning. Refugees have 10 days to identify themselves to police or they lose the right to seek asylum from Turkey. Now Akbar's clan was told that they had six months to receive asylum from the UNHCR or be forced back to Iran. They immediately contacted the UNHCR, which scheduled an appointment for two months later. The UNHCR, which refused to comment specifically on this family's case, sent a French woman named Sandrine to interview them. Though polite, she refused to believe that they were actually Christians. She didn't speak their language and, relying on a poor translator, asked them a string of Trivial Pursuit-type questions, including "What did John the Baptist eat?" When Laleh answered correctly "grasshoppers and honey," she heard the translator say to Sandrine in English, "She doesn't know." Sandrine labeled Akbar's family UN case # E1012 and rejected their pleas. On appeal to UNHCR offices in Ankara, the case was rejected a second time. At no time, family members confirm, were any of them asked about their persecution in Iran or about the core beliefs of Christianity. UNHCR's Turkish operation should be among its most efficient. Compared to the 22 million refugees and others the agency supervises around the globe, the agency is responsible for barely 7,000 non-European cases in Turkey, according to the UNHCR's spokesman Metin Corabatir. What's more, the agency has 70 staffers working at four offices in Turkey, plus dozens of others at the five non-governmental organizations under contract with UNHCR. Worldwide the UNHCR has roughly one field staffer for every 4,163 "people of concern." In Turkey it has about one for every 234 people, based on figures published on its website. UNHCR spends an average of $54.50 per person of concern worldwide; according to UNHCR figures, while in Turkey, it spends $489 per person, more than 10 times the global average. UNHCR sent Akbar and his family an English/Farsi letter on March 3, 2000. The form letter contained a checked box beside this: "after carefully examining your application in this second review you have not been found to meet the refugee criteria under international refugee law." The letter, signed by Mizra Hussain Khan, concluded: "You are therefore not a person of concern to UNHCR. As a result, we have closed your file and are unable to assist you." "It felt like one of our children had died in front of us," Akbar says. If Akbar and his family don't meet the "refugee criteria" under international law, who does? An American relative of Akbar from Phoenix, Ariz., who previously wired him money in Van, began a letter-writing campaign to U.S. lawmakers. Senators John McCain, John Kyl, Arlen Specter, and others pressed the U.S. State Department to take a second look at the case. Meanwhile, Jim Jacobson, a former adviser to President Reagan and now president of Christian Freedom International, a Front Royal, Va.-based human-rights group, took the case. He met with congressional aides and began fighting the red tape of the refugee process. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service agreed to review the case, a nearly unprecedented move for a case already turned down by UNHCR. As a first step, Akbar's clan would have to be interviewed by the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC), a nonprofit group funded by a contract with the U.S. government. Then, calls from media, U.S. congressional staffers, and the persistence of Mr. Jacobson seemed to have an effect. The next day, Akbar's clan was respectfully asked about their persecution in Iran. Later that day, ICMC cleared Mr. Akbar and family members for a hearing with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. Reporters were barred on grounds of "privacy." The hearing was short. The INS decided that Akbar, his wife, two daughters, and two cousins were permitted to come to the United States. But two of the group were not permitted entry: Bita, Akbar's wife's sister, a mentally ill invalid who cannot feed, dress, or bathe herself; and Kian, a shy 19-year-old boy. While the INS gave no reason for its decision, Bita's mental condition and Kian's flu may have disqualified them on medical grounds. Today, the whole family is back in Van. In a few months, another nonprofit under contract with the U.S. government will send documents allowing six of them to leave for a new life in Phoenix. But should they leave the weakest members of their family? The perverse and all too often inhumane international refugee system has given them another heart-wrenching choice.

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