Like many, we were troubled to learn that the U.S. recently denied refugee status to almost 80 people who are members of persecuted religious minority groups in Iran. Most are Assyrian and Armenian Christians; there are also small numbers of Zoroastrians and Mandaeans.
These people left Iran and arrived in Austria under the provisions of a special U.S. program aimed at providing a lifeline to persecuted religious minorities in Iran. Endangered people are pre-vetted while still in Iran, and in the past almost 100 percent of applicants were approved after arriving in Vienna. Yet, for no apparent reason, this group of pre-vetted refugees waited for well over a year in Vienna only to be told that their applications had been denied and that they had two weeks to leave Vienna — with their savings drained and nowhere to go.
What follows are the facts we know, what we do not know and what we ask of the U.S. government.
The State Department repeatedly has designated Iran as a “country of particular concern” (CPC) for its systematic ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom and its targeting of religious minorities. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson highlighted Iran’s religious freedom violations, especially the persecution of Christians and Baha'is, during the August 2017 launch of the State Department’s Religious Freedom Report. Vice President Mike Pence has eloquently advocated for persecuted members of minority religions, and the Trump administration has condemned Iran’s treatment of Christians and other minorities.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and the State Department have documented that Iran’s religious minorities face a horrible array of abuses, including severe physical and psychological mistreatment, harassment and surveillance, sham trials and imprisonment on absurd charges related to their religious practices, and in some cases they have faced death. Imagine the terror of life under a regime where you can be charged with “corruption on earth,” “propaganda against the system” and actions against national security simply for seeking to peacefully live out your faith.
We also know that the abysmal conditions for Iranian religious minorities prompted Congress in 2003 to expand the Lautenberg Amendment, which expedites refugee resettlement in the U.S., to include religious minorities from Iran. (The amendment originally focused on resettling in the U.S. of Jews and evangelicals from the former Soviet Union. This aspect of the law continues unabated.)
After negotiations with the Austrian government, the State Department created a program through which the Austrian embassy in Tehran issues transit visas to certain religious minorities to travel to Vienna, where they can be safe while their cases are processed for refugee resettlement in the U.S. (This is necessary because there is no U.S. Embassy in Iran.) Before their arrival in Vienna, these people must undergo a lengthy security clearance, with additional security checks conducted while they are in Vienna. Because of the extensive security clearance they must go through before leaving Iran and due to the almost 100 percent approval rate for resettlement in America for those who come to Austria, the majority of these people sell most of their belongings before leaving Iran.
Since 2001, more than 32,000 Iranian persecuted religious minorities have been able to join their family members already living in the U.S. Even since 2017 and the implementation of new security protocols, more than 800 were approved under the amendment and granted safe haven in the United States.
These are the facts we know. What we don’t know is why these 80 persecuted religious minorities were denied U.S. refugee resettlement. Even though the amendment mandates that the government must justify a denial “to the maximum extent feasible,” they merely were told that their applications were denied “as a matter of discretion,” with no case-specific details provided. State Department officials have stated that the new security protocols resulted in the increased denials. But such a basis is confounding given that these cases do not differ materially from those that have been approved.
It also is unsettling, given the seemingly group nature of the denials and that the Iranian government also often uses “security concerns” to target its religious minorities. Furthermore, if these victims of persecution truly are security concerns, why would the U.S. government offer to help resettle them in other countries? And why has the State Department accepted no new cases for processing in Vienna for the past year? This has stranded over 4,700 vulnerable people in Iran, including Christians, Jews, Baha’is, Zoroastrians and Mandaeans. These are people who have registered for the program, and now it appears we are threatening the closure of Vienna as their lifeline to freedom.
These questions demand answers — promptly. These applicants are out of money, have suffered tremendously in Iran and have been left in limbo in Vienna, where they are not allowed to work or go to school.3 comments on this story
We urge the administration to get to the bottom of what is going on, take the steps needed to immediately reconsider these denials in as transparent a way as possible, fulfill the congressional intent of the Lautenberg Amendment, respond to the concerns raised by members of Congress, including the co-chairs of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission — Reps. Randy Hultgren, R-Ill., and James McGovern, D-Mass., — and reinvigorate the Vienna program and implementation of the Lautenberg Amendment.
Anything less endangers persecuted religious minorities whom we as a nation have rightly pledged to protect.
Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University. Katrina Lantos Swett is president of the Tom Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice. Both authors have chaired the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.