EU High Court rules against deportation of Christian converts to Iran, urges grant of asylum

Christian Orthodox Iranian migrants Roya (C) and Sami (R), who live at a makeshift camp for refugees and migrants, hold icons during a mass marking the Sunday of Orthodoxy at the church of the village of Idomeni, Greece, on March 20, 2016.Reuters

Religious and human rights groups are applauding a European court decision that ruled governments must grant a fair evaluation of Christian converts before they are denied asylum and sent back to Iran.

This week, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights ruled in the case of F.G vs. Sweden that the Swedish government would be violating Articles 2 and 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protect life and safeguard against inhumane treatment, if it deported the applicant.

"The lower chamber (of the court) underestimated the severe danger to this convert's life,'' Robert Clarke, director of European Advocacy for the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) International, told the Catholic News Agency (CNA).

"The Grand Chamber rightly noted that Christian converts are one of the most persecuted religious minorities in Iran. Moreover, the Islamic regime governing Iran has systematic mechanisms in place to identify all Christian converts – even those practicing in secret," Clarke added.

Roger Severino, director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation, said: "Asylum should be granted to individuals who are being persecuted and fear for their lives because of converting to a different religion.

"Iran's anti-conversion laws violate the fundamental human right to be able to choose your own religion and live out your beliefs, which includes the right to change your religion without the government threatening imprisonment or in the case of Iran, death for apostasy," he told CNA.

In 2009, an Iranian citizen reportedly applied for asylum and a resident permit in Sweden after suffering political persecution. Two years later, the Swedish Migration Office denied his request, which he appealed.

The lower chamber of the court ruled in January 2014 that Sweden's denial was "justified" because the applicant's life was reportedly not in jeopardy, since Iranian authorities were unaware of his conversion and he could keep his faith private.

The ADF, however, filed a brief on behalf of the Iranian citizen with the European Human Court of Human Rights, arguing that the lower court's decision "violated his religious freedom" and that converts to Christianity face numerous threats in Iran.

The judgment states: "The applicant's conversion to Christianity is a criminal offence punishable by death in Iran. In addition to the risk of social persecution as a Christian, the applicant risks criminal prosecution for the crime of apostasy. The order for the applicant's deportation to Iran, where he could be tried under the above-mentioned criminal and procedural law, equates to a violation of principles deeply enshrined in the universal legal conscience."

Iran ranked as the ninth worst country for Christian persecution. It considers conversion from Islam a crime punishable by death.

Clarke warned that if a convert to Christianity is identified by the Iranian government, he or she is very likely "to suffer substantial harm, deprivation of liberty, assaults and continual harassment. In the worst case the individual could face severe ill-treatment or death.''

In its 2014 religious freedom report, the U.S. State Department indicated that "Christians, particularly evangelicals, continued to experience disproportionate levels of arrests and high levels of harassment and surveillance."

The U.N. Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran also reported "that authorities held at least 49 Protestant Christians in custody, many for involvement in informal house churches,'' according to CNA.

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