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U.S. commission says it is ‘alarmed’ at treatment of Iran’s religious minorities

WASHINGTON (BP)–The United States should speed up attempts to protect the religious freedom and other human rights of beleaguered minorities in Iran, a federal advisory panel has warned.

The U.S. Commission on International Freedom called for Washington to take action amid what it described as rapidly deteriorating conditions for religious minorities in the Islamic state, even though it acknowledged the White House’s policy alternatives are limited.

Meanwhile, Iran was named March 1 as the third worst persecutor of Christians by Open Doors, a ministry to the suffering church. Iran moved up two spots from Open Doors’ 2005 list and now trails only North Korea and Saudi Arabia for recognition as the world’s most severe persecutor of followers of Christ.

Threats by political and religious leaders, as well as imprisonments and violence, have increased for religious minorities in Iran in recent months, the USCIRF said in a recent news release. Conditions had already begun to decline before Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected Iran’s president in August, but public remarks by the new president and other leaders have demonstrated things could become worse for non-Muslims in the country, the commission said.

Among the developments cited by the USCIRF were:

— Ahmadinejad reportedly called for a halt to Christianity’s development in Iran.

— The new president and other leaders denied the Holocaust occurred.

— The publication of anti-Jewish tracts increased in the state-controlled media.

— A Muslim religious leader described non-Muslims as “sinful animals” and “corrupt.”

— A state-regulated newspaper published a series of articles demonizing the Baha’i religion and community.

Baha’is constitute the largest religious minority in Iran and are not legally recognized. Several Baha’i leaders have been attacked and arrested in recent months, and property belonging to the Baha’i community has been taken or destroyed, according to the USCIRF.

“The commission is alarmed by the growing frequency of inflammatory rhetoric aimed at religious minorities by high-level Iranian government officials and clerics,” USCIRF Chairman Michael Cromartie said in a Feb. 24 written release. “This pattern unfortunately is reminiscent of language, used by Iranian authorities during the early years of the Iranian Revolution, which preceded the severe atrocities committed against members of all religious minorities, particularly the Baha’i community.”

The Bush administration’s request for $75 million to aid democracy in Iran should include funds to advance human rights, the USCIRF said. There is no direct diplomatic relationship between the United States and Iran.

The State Department has designated Iran as one of the “countries of particular concern,” a list of the world’s worst violators of religious liberty, since it began making such classifications in 1999.

The Barnabas Fund, a British ministry to the persecuted church, has called for governments and international organizations to protect Christians who live in countries where they are minorities, such as Iran. It has started Right to Justice, a campaign that includes a petition to be presented to government heads in an effort to guard the rights of Christians, especially those in Muslim-dominated countries.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, is one of the USCIRF’s nine commissioners.

The USCIRF, which is a nonpartisan panel appointed by the president and members of Congress, researches the status of religious liberty in other countries and provides reports and recommendations to the White House and Congress.

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