The untold story of Iran's religious minorities

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The United States government has been helping victims of religious persecution escape Iran. Absent Congressional action, however, that escape route will close at the end of September.
 
Over 20 years ago, the Lautenberg Amendment was enacted to provide a means to freedom for victims of religious persecution in the Soviet Union. Today, its main purpose is to facilitate the resettlement of Jews, Christians, Baha’is, and other religious minorities seeking to flee Iran. With no embassy in Iran, the U.S. government needs the cooperation of other countries in order to provide safe passage to Iranian religious minorities so they may reunite with their families and exiled religious communities in the United States. The Lautenberg Amendment provides these countries with necessary assurances that bona fide members of Iranian religious minorities who are under consideration by the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program will be admitted into the United States if they meet certain requirements. Each year, an average of 2,000-2,500 people are assisted through this legislation. But unless Congress acts fast, the Lautenberg Amendment will expire on September 30, closing the door to freedom for these victims of religious persecution.



Without the Lautenberg Amendment, Nadia* might not have been able to find freedom in the United States. As a Mandaean, she is part of a non-Muslim religious minority in Iran – Mandaeanism is a gnostic religion that follows John the Baptist. Due to her religion, Nadia continuously faced mistreatment and discrimination. As a young woman in Iran, she dreamed of getting a university degree but feared applying for enrollment because the Iranian government requires a declaration of one’s religion on the application form. “If you write ‘Mandaean’ as your religion,” Nadia explains, “they sometimes come to investigate you. They will ask your neighbors about you, and this can lead to trouble.” After applying for refuge in the United States, being processed in Vienna, and undergoing cultural orientation, Nadia recently was resettled in Southern California, where she now has the opportunity to live and pursue her goals without facing discrimination.



Similar to the Iran Sanctions legislation, extending the Lautenberg Amendment has strong bipartisan support; in particular, Senators Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), as well as Representatives Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Robert Dold (R-Ill.), have been champions of this issue. The Senate included a one-year extension of the Lautenberg Amendment in its version of the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill, and the House currently is circulating a letter urging House leadership to make certain that an extension of the Lautenberg Amendment is included on the next spending measure. Though there is wide Congressional support, there is no time to waste. It is critical that members of Congress across the country and from both sides of the aisle sign this letter and support the extension of the Amendment.

Without the Lautenberg Amendment, the ability of the United States to protect persecuted religious minorities would be greatly diminished. Since the Amendment was extended to Iranian religious minorities in 2004, thousands of Iranians who face religious persecution have benefited from the safe path to freedom provided by this legislation. The United States was established as a haven for refugees of faith, and the religious freedom guaranteed by the Bill of Rights is a fundamental American principle. Congress should act soon to ensure that this door to religious freedom is not slammed shut.



*Name changed for anonymity.

Hetfield is interim president and CEO of HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society).