WASHINGTON (BP)--A humanitarian program that gives persecuted religious minorities in Iran a safe avenue to flee the country may be canceled, if U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R.-Texas, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, maintains his opposition.

The program, which costs the United States nothing, is authorized by the "Lautenberg Amendment," a provision attached to the annual foreign affairs budget. The provision allows the Austrian embassy in Tehran to help the American embassy in Vienna process refugee applications from Iranian religious minorities, according to a May 24 article in The National Review by Paul Marshall, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom, and Tina Ramirez, director of government relations at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

"If Rep. Lamar Smith ... does not quickly make some changes, one casualty of the current budget debates could be Iran's heavily persecuted religious minorities," Marshall and Ramirez wrote.

"Iran has persecuted its religious minorities since 1979, but in recent years, under Ahmadinejad, the repression has increased ... hundreds of Christians have been arrested in the last few months; and Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani faces a possible death sentence for apostasy," the article continued. "Iran has been certified under the U.S. International Religious Freedom Act as a 'Country of Particular Concern' because of its religious repression. Yet, as this crackdown on religious minorities escalates, Congress is about to end one of the few diplomatic tools we have to protect Baha'is, Christians, Jews, and others targeted by the regime."

Despite pleas from religious organizations and members of Congress, Smith is resisting renewing the program, preferring instead to have personal oversight of programs relating to immigration, Marshall and Ramirez wrote. Not renewing the program, which was set to expire June 1, could result in Austria no longer issuing visas and persecuted minorities being trapped in Iran.

"At a time when the Middle East is in ferment, this is an opportunity to support human dignity and religious freedom," Marshall and Ramirez wrote. "Those who support religious liberty should press Congressman Smith to end his opposition."

Iran's government is pressuring Christians because more and more Iranian Muslims are deciding to follow Jesus, according to a June 1 article in Christianity Today.

"The house church movement is booming, with converts estimated in the hundreds of thousands," the article said. "Evangelists are distributing large numbers of New Testaments, and satellite television continually beams Christian programs into the country.... Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei declared the house church network 'enemies of Iran' in an October speech, which analysts labeled a rare public acknowledgement of the movement."

A spokesman for a Christian human rights organization said the stakes in not renewing the Lautenberg Amendment are high for Iranian Christians.

"Without the program's quick renewal, Austria may stop issuing visas and force Iranian Christians to pursue more dangerous options to avoid imprisonment and possible execution," said Aidan Clay, International Christian Concern's regional manager for the Middle East. "We urge the U.S. Congress to save countless lives by permanently renewing the Lautenberg Amendment to assure religious minorities in Iran that their applications will be reviewed and processed."

Compiled by Baptist Press assistant editor and senior writer Mark Kelly. Rep. Lamar Smith's office may be contacted by telephone at 202-225-4236.

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