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USCIRF: Increase focus on Iran

WASHINGTON (BP)–The call for human rights scrutiny of Iran is a longstanding one, panelists said at a hearing of the congressional Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission.

Leonard Leo, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said USCIRF, since its creation by Congress in 1998, “has recommended that Iran be named a ‘country of particular concern,’ or CPC, for engaging in systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom.”

The panel of witnesses included Leo, as well as Ali Afshari, a political activist, and Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council.

Testifying on the current state of religious freedom in Iran, Leo said the extremist Islamic regime has utilized harassment and physical attacks in repressing religious minorities, which include Baha’is and Sufi Muslims as well as Christians.

Afshari, recounting his experience in an Iranian prison, said he endured countless beatings, solitary confinement and electrocution. More and more young people are being sent to prison for their religious identity in the recent intensified persecution, Afshari said.

Leo noted that government officials have executed more than 200 Baha’i leaders since 1979.

The government recently has intensified its persecution, and citizens have lost their homes, their jobs and opportunities to pursue higher education, Leo said, according to his written testimony.

“Although the Iranian government maintains publicly that Baha’is are free to attend university, reports over the past year indicate that the policy of preventing Baha’is from obtaining higher education remains in effect,” Leo said.

Leo countered the Iranian government’s claims that it does not arrest citizens based on their religious affiliation but only targets those who insult Islam or participate in cult-like activities.

Iran has rejected all recommendations by countries urging the government to “comply with its international humans rights responsibilities, including those related to freedom of religion,” Leo said at the Feb. 25 hearing.

The panelists discussed ways that the U.S. government can bring greater international attention to Iranian citizens facing persecution.

Leo suggested Washington publicly declare its support for human rights in Iran and that it call for accountability among authorities in countries where violations of rights occur.

Lawmakers at the hearing voiced consensus on modifying certain U.S. policies that unintentionally aid in the suffering of Iranian citizens and that a meeting with the United Nations Human Rights Council is necessary in order to investigate Iranian abuses and arrests.

Parsi suggested American citizens be allowed to give money to human rights organizations in Iran.

“The world must not forget about the human rights situation in Iran. For too long, there has been a singular focus on the nuclear issue, while neglecting the many other challenges posed by the policies of Iran’s government,” Parsi said, according to her written testimony.

“There is much the world can do to help stop abuses in Iran,” Parsi said. “And there is much that the United States can do to tandem with the partners in the international community.”

On Feb. 22, USCIRF announced it had selected Jackie Wolcott as its new executive director. Wolcott served as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Security Council under President George W. Bush. She previously was deputy assistant secretary for international organizations at the State Department under Bush and held the same position during the administration of President George H.W. Bush.

USCIRF is a nine-member, bipartisan commission that reports to Congress and the executive branch on the condition of global religious liberty.
Hillary May is an intern with the Washington bureau of Baptist Press.

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