In recent months it has become even more difficult for Iranian Christians, and other persecuted believers, to win refuge in the West. A little-noted decision by the Austrian government to stop issuing visas for religious minorities is having a ripple effect for those fleeing Iran.
Austria was the only country in Europe where Iranian Christians could apply directly to the United States without needing a referral from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR). Applying elsewhere can be dangerous. "In Pakistan, for example, they have radical Muslims who are UN officers," said Abe Ghaffari, president of refugee agency Iranian Christians International.
Many Iranian Christians went to Vienna on visas for religious minorities, then applied for refugee status at the U.S. embassy. But about two months ago, the Austrian government stopped letting them in. The reason: Under post-9/11 rules the U.S. embassy was denying so many applications, some Iranians started claiming asylum in Austria, said Martin Kraemer, the Austrian Consul-General in Washington.
Asylum seekers are different from refugees. Both flee persecution, but asylees arrive on U.S. soil to claim protection with rights afforded under American law. Refugees have their cases adjudicated abroad, and have slimmer chances of making it to the United States.
The good news is, even with stricter requirements in place for both refugees and asylum seekers, happy endings are possible. Iranian Saeed Salman ended his confinement at a U.S. immigration detention center recently with the reopening of his asylum case in November. What led to the case's resurrection: The Salmans had converted from Islam to Christianity while in the United States.
Mr. Salman and his wife and two sons went to Indiana in 1999 as visitors, but immediately applied for asylum on grounds of political persecution in Iran. His father had worked for the former Shah of Iran, a Western ally deposed in 1979 during the Iranian revolution, and Mr. Salman, a civil engineer, refused to help construct a secret government prison. Iranian authorities detained and beat him. They imprisoned and beat his wife.
Living under the constant shadow of more punishment, or death, the family seized on an opportunity to escape to the United States. A federal immigration judge in Chicago denied their asylum claim in 2000, saying the persecution they'd suffered was neither intense nor long enough to merit permanent sanctuary. An appeal earlier this year also failed.
In the meantime, the family began attending a church in Indiana where they became Christians. They were baptized in June, and church members testified to the genuineness of their new faith. The conversion provided new grounds for their asylum case: In Iran, changing from Islam to Christianity is punishable by death.
Enter Roger Severino of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and local attorney Mark Jacob Thomas, who pressed to reopen their case. Several weeks ago, the Justice Department's Board of Immigration Appeals did so, saying the new threat of religious persecution made the Salmans eligible for asylum. Mr. Severino believes Mr. Salman can now win the case. "He's a very grateful man," Mr. Severino said.