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Border patrol

"Border patrol" Continued...

Issue: "Jim Talent: Majority maker," Nov. 23, 2002

Ethnic Christians in Iran, mostly Armenians or Assyrians, are not always harassed by Islamic authorities, but recent converts usually are. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom places Iran on the top tier of the world's worst religious-freedom offenders.

In October 2000 police raided Nancy's home. At the time she was out visiting Christian friends, but police questioned Nancy's husband about her church activities. They also found her Bible and other Christian literature.

At her husband's instruction, Nancy stayed away. Police returned over the next few days, questioning Nancy's husband and her daughter (who are also Christians but had not drawn police attention). They ordered Nancy to appear at security offices. Instead, Nancy and her husband decided she should leave the country. She was able to obtain a Canadian visitor's visa with the help of a sister-in-law then living in Canada, and arrived in North America on Nov. 8, 2000.

Nancy lived in a refugee shelter in Montreal for several months. She attended a small, nondenominational church called Word of Life, where she was baptized on Jan. 25, 2001, before coming to Ascension. After six months of instruction and examination from Mr. Ristau, she became a communicant member able to take the Lord's Supper. She has an apartment two subway stops from the church, teaches ESL at Ascension twice a week, and attends two weekly Bible studies.

So why, after finding a refuge from persecution in Canada and for nearly two years leading what by all appearances is a consistent Christian life, is she likely to be deported into the hands of Iranian officials who clearly wish her ill?

The legal reason is this: In June, an immigration judge ruled against her claim for permanent residency. Immigration and Refugee Board Judge Helene Panagakos said Nancy "does not have a credible basis for the claim"-a ruling that denies her a right to full appeal. The judge wrote that she "does not believe that [Nancy] was baptized and therefore does not believe that she converted to Christianity."

Immigration judges recently have turned down similar claims from other Ascension churchgoers-a mother with two children from Pakistan and her two brothers. Two of those cases also contained the 'no credible basis' ruling that-under Canadian law-blocks all but a technical review of the case by a federal court. Under the cross-border agreement set to take effect in January, Nancy would find no remedy in the United States, either.

Pastor Ristau is mystified. "We are not a big parish," he said, "and yet we've had four hearings this year where Christians were turned down while Muslim neighbors are telling me all the time that they've been accepted. It's not a Muslim versus Christian thing-I'm actually glad the Muslims are making a way to Canada because we can share the gospel with them-but it's hard to believe there isn't something amiss here."

Mr. Ristau was called as a witness in Nancy's case and answered questions from Ms. Panagakos for 90 minutes. The judge questioned him on Nancy's baptism by immersion at a swimming pool under Nancy's previous church; Mr. Ristau affirmed it had occurred. The judge asked about Nancy's understanding of cults, because Nancy was unable to answer a question about whether Jehovah's Witnesses is a cult. The judge was puzzled by Nancy's answer to her question, Who is the head of the church? (Nancy answered, Jesus Christ.) The judge also questioned Mr. Ristau on the meaning of the term evangelical.

In her decision, Ms. Panagakos then wrote: "The Reverend may very well be satisfied that the claimant has converted to Christianity, however, given all that precedes, the panel is not." (Ms. Panagakos referred to herself as a "panel" even though she made the ruling by herself. Immigration and Refugee Board panels by law should be composed of two judges, but a groaning caseload leaves individual immigration judges as final arbiters.)

Nancy is of course dissatisfied with the decision, and says that officials "distrust anybody coming from a Muslim country who says they have converted" to Christianity. She does not believe Ms. Panagakos understood what she was saying, in part because she speaks English but not French and was hampered by a requirement that throughout her hearing she answer questions in Farsi through an interpreter. "I could see some of what I said was lost," she said. The interpreter told Mr. Ristau after the hearing that he is a Muslim and was very confused by the terminology used in the examination. "I don't understand you Christians," he said.

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