American Iranian Friendship Council

Saturday, March 26, 2005


Religious Diversity in Iran
Iran is 98% Muslim, mostly Shi'a (89%) but also Sunni (see the article below for the difference). Religious minorities include Jews (see below), Zoroastrians, Christians (mostly Armenians and Assyrians) and Baha'is.

Facts About Islam Source: American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee Islam is an Arabic word meaning submission to God. As a religion Islam calls for complete acceptance of and submission to the teachings and guidance of God. The word has connotations of peace and wholeness. It has the same root as “Salaam” – peace. A Muslim is one who freely and willingly accepts the supreme power of God and strives to live his or her life in accord with the teachings of God. Allah is the Arabic language word for God. Allah is also used by Arabic-speaking Christians and Jews in prayer or speaking about God. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are the three great monotheistic world religions. Muslims believe that the Qur’an (or Koran) is God’s word as revealed to the prophet Muhammad through the angel Gabriel. The Qur’an is the basis for Muslim beliefs regarding God, worship, morality, knowledge, wisdom, the human relationship to God, and relationships among human beings. Just as Christian believe that the person of Jesus was the Word or manifestation of God, Muslims believe that it is the Qur’an itself which is that Word and manifestation. The original text of the Quran is in Arabic and translations are available in major libraries and bookstores everywhere. Muhammad is respected as a prophet. He is not regarded as the “founder” of Islam, but rather as one in a long line of prophets from Adam to Abraham, Moses, Solomon, and Jesus. Islam therefore did not begin with Muhammad, whose role was that of a “messenger” who received and passed on a revelation from God. He made it clear that Muslims should “call me the servant of God and His messenger.” He is regarded as a human being and in no way divine. He is seen as the final prophet who completed the revelation began by the earlier prophets. The Hadith – the teachings, sayings and actions of Muhammad – were reported and collected by his devoted companions. They explain and elaborate the Qur’anic verses and provide a model for the conduct of Muslims. Every action done with the awareness that it fulfills the will of God is considered an act of worship, but the specific acts termed the Five Pillars of Islam provide the framework of Muslim spiritual life. 1) The Declaration of Faith: “I bear witness that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is his messenger.” 2) Prayer is prescribed five times a day as a duty towards God. Prayer strengthens and enlivens belief in God and inspires one to a higher morality. 3) Fasting is called for during the month of Ramadan. This involves abstention from food, beverages, and sexual activity from sunrise to sunset and it means curbing evil intentions and desires. Allowances are made for health, age and circumstances. After sunset, there are family and community meals and celebration. 4) Zakat is a proportionately fixed contribution from the surplus earnings and wealth of the Muslims. It is spent on the poor and needy and for the welfare of society as a whole. 5) The Hajj is the pilgrimage to the Ka’bah in Makkah (Mecca), at least once in a lifetime, provided one has the means to undertake the journey. Muslims, Christians and Jews all worship the same God. The Qur’an has many stories about Biblical characters which are very similar to those in the Old and New Testaments. Jesus is very highly honored as a prophet, although Muslims believe that Christians erred in regarding him as divine. Muslims greatly respect Mary as the mother of Jesus. They believe in the virginal birth of Jesus through the power of the Spirit of God. However, they believe that errors have crept into the Jewish and Christian traditions and into the text of the Bible. The mission of Muhammad was to correct those errors. Nonetheless, the Qur’an teaches that Jews, Christians and Muslims are all “People of the Book.” As believers, Jews and Christians have juridical rights under Islamic law to live as “protected peoples.” Historically, Islam has been a relatively tolerant religion. Islam clearly teaches that “There is to be no compulsion in matters of religion.” In the 7th century Muslim armies brought vast territories under Muslim political control, but conversion to Islam was voluntary and was not imposed “by the sword.” This is a Western myth. Some Misconceptions about Islam “Muslim,” “Arab,” and “Islam” are not interchangeable terms. Islam refers to the religion itself. Muslims are the followers of Islam. Arabs are a linguistic and cultural community with a common history. Most but not all Arabs are Muslims. Most Muslims are not Arabs. About 85% of the world’s Muslims are not Arabs. Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world. About 12 million Arabs are Christian and thousands are Jewish. “Mohammadanism” is a misnomer for Islam and offends its very spirit, since Muhammad was a merely a messenger of God. The accurate translation of the Arabic word jihad should be “exertion of effort or struggle” in accord with the will of God. It is any strenuous effort – physical, intellectual, spiritual – for the good. The “higher jihad” is the personal struggle to become a better Muslim. Jihad can mean standing up to speak the word of truth to tyrants and to call for justice. It can also be a religiously guided military struggle, but it does not mean “holy war.” The Arabic word for war is "harb," which does not appear in the Qur’an. Islam is not a pacifist religion. It teaches that a war in self-defense is permissible and a duty, but the conduct of war is to be in accord with rules forbidding the harming of women, children and old men or the destruction of property. This is the “lesser jihad.” Not every “jihad” called by political leaders is in accord with the requirements of Islam. Such a call can often be regarded as an appeal to emotionally-laden traditional symbols without real religious standing. “Islamic fundamentalism”: There are widespread movements of spiritual and cultural revivalism in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Many of them are critical of Western influence and seek a return to the authentic roots of their own traditions. A small number of these movements use violent means to achieve political goals. These are what is usually referred to in the West as fundamentalists. More mainstream Muslims consider such movements as deviations from authentic Islam. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Scarves of Many Colors - Women and the Veil - Curriculum -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Sunni and Shi'a By David Kremer for BBC The words Sunni and Shia appear regularly in stories about the Muslim world but few people know what they really mean. Religion permeates every aspect of life in Muslim countries and understanding Sunni and Shia beliefs is important in understanding the modern Muslim world. The division between the Sunnis and the Shia is the largest and oldest in the history of Islam. To understand it, it is good to know a little bit about the political legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. When the Prophet died in the early 7th Century he not only left the religion of Islam but also an Islamic State in the Arabian Peninsula with around one hundred thousand Muslim inhabitants. It was the question of who should succeed the Prophet and lead the fledgling Islamic state that created the divide. One group of Muslims (the larger group) elected Abu Bakr, a close companion of the Prophet as the next caliph (leader) of the Muslims and he was duly appointed. However a smaller group believed that the Prophet's son-in-law, Ali, should become the caliph. Both Shi'as and Sunni have good evidence to support their theories. For example, the Prophet chose Abu Bakr to lead the congregational prayers as he lay on his deathbed, suggesting to Sunni's that the Prophet was hinting at the next leader. Shi'as take the evidence that Muhammad stood up in front of hundreds of his companions on his way back from Hajj, and proclaimed that his family would never be led astray. Reports say he took Ali's hand and said that anyone who followed Muhammad should follow Ali. Muslims who believe that Abu Bakr should be the Prophet's successor have come to be known as Sunni. Muslims who believe Ali should have been the Prophet's successor are now known as Shia. The use of the word successor should not be confused to mean that that those that followed the Prophet Muhammad were also prophets - both Shia and Sunni agree that Muhammad was the final prophet. Both Sunni and Shia legitimise their views using Islam's sacred scriptures. Both groups say that the Qur'an (which Muslims believe to be the revealed word of Allah) and the Hadith (the narrations of the Prophet) show their choice of leader to be the right one. Ali delayed pledging his oath of loyalty to Abu Bakr. A few months later he changed his mind. He sought reconciliation with Abu Bakr and pledged allegiance to him. Over the next two decades Umar ibn al-Khattab and Uthman ibn 'Affan succeeded as the second and third caliphs before Ali was elected as the fourth caliph. Ali became caliph following the murder of Uthman but he was opposed by Aisha, wife of the Prophet, who accused him of being lax in bringing Uthman's killers to justice. The dispute led to the Battle of the Camel in 656 where Aisha was defeated. Later Aisha apologised to Ali but the clash had already strengthened any opposition to Ali's rule. Considering the religious climate, the appointment of a caliph with a heretical theology seems inconceivable and demonstrates the political, and not theological, nature of the dispute at the time. In fact it was only later that the terms Sunni and Shia came into use. Sunni means 'one who follows the Sunna' (what the Prophet said, did, agreed to or condemned). Shia is a contraction of the phrase 'Shiat Ali', meaning the 'partisans of Ali'. Both groups, who embrace the Prophet and Ali, naturally dispute whether each others' group can be correct in claiming to be either 'Sunni' or 'Shia'. Islam's dominion had already spread to Syria by the time of Ali's caliphate. The governor of Damascus, Mu'awiya, fought Ali to claim the caliphate for himself. In the famous Battle of Siffin in 657 that demonstrated the religious fervour of the time, Mu'awiya's soldiers flagged the ends of their spears with verses from the Qur'an. Ali's supporters felt morally unable to fight their Muslim brothers. The Battle of Siffin proved indecisive. Ali and Mu'awiya agreed to settle the dispute with outside arbitrators. However this solution of human arbitration was unacceptable to a group of Ali's followers who pointed to the Qur'anic verse: The decision is for Allah only. He telleth the truth and He is the Best of Deciders. This group, the Kharijites, formed their own sect and opposed all contenders to the caliphate. In 661 the Kharijites killed Ali while he was praying in a mosque in Kufa, Iraq. In the years that followed, the Kharijites were defeated in a series of uprisings. Around 500,000 descendents of the Kharijites survive to this day in North Africa, Oman and Zanzibar in a sub sect known as the Ibadiyah. The community of early Muslims lost its unity. Unlike their predecessors their leadership was unelected and their claim to leadership was hereditary. Remarkably, this turn of events was in keeping with the prophecy of Muhammad in which he said: the caliphate will remain in my nation after me for thirty years. Then, it will be a monarchy after that. What happened next gave Shia Islam its strong theme of martyrdom. Ali's youngest son, Hussein, ruled Kufa in Iraq. When Yazid, Mu'awiya's son, seized the caliphate in 680 Hussein led a rebellion but was met by Yazid's forces in Karbala, Iraq. Despite knowing he was hopelessly outnumbered, Hussein fought heroically and was killed on the battlefield. It is one of the most significant events in Shia history, where Hussein is considered to have sacrificed his life for the survival of Shia Islam. It is still commemorated today as Ashura where millions of pilgrims still visit the Imam Hussein mosque in Karbala. The leadership continued with imams, in lieu of caliphs, believed to be divinely appointed from the Prophet's family until the late 9th Century. According to the Twelvers, the largest Shia sect, Muhammad al-Muntazar al-Mahdi was the twelfth imam in the Prophet's family in the line of Ali and Hussein. The Shia believe that as a young boy Muhammad al-Muntazar al-Mahdi was hidden in a cave below a mosque in Samarra. He disappeared, and not accepting that he had died, the Shia await his return. This is a sacred place for the Shia and they still pray here for the return of the twelfth Imam. This event marks the end of leadership of the Shia in the family of the prophet. After several centuries a council or Ulema was appointed to elect an Ayatollah: the supreme spiritual leader. Ayatollah translates literally from Arabic as 'Sign of Allah' and as the name suggests is bestowed with great religious authority. As Sunni Islam expanded into the complex and urban societies of the once Roman and Persian empires, new ethical questions were encountered that demanded the authority of religious answers. In the first two centuries Sunni Islam responded with the emergence of four popular schools of thought - the Hanbali, Hanafi, Maliki and Shaafii - which to this day continue to seek to find Islamic solutions in any society, regardless of time or place. Shia Muslims have always maintained that the Prophet's family were the rightful leaders of the Islamic world. Although the Shia never ruled the majority of Muslims they did have their successes. The empire of the Safavid dynasties in the 16th Century was a great political triumph for Shia Islam, encompassing parts of modern Iran, Azerbaijan and Iraq. Today, Iran is the political face of Shia Islam. Politically, Sunni Islam continued through the Umayyads (started by Mu'awiya) and other dynasties that led to the powerful Ottoman and Mughal empires of the 15th to 20th Centuries. In the wake of these empires the Sunnis emerge as an over-arching identity grouping close to 90% of the now one billion Muslims. Sunnis have a large populations stretching geographically from the Indonesian archipelago through the Indian subcontinent, central Asia, the Arab world and Africa to the periphery of Europe. Initially the difference between Sunni and Shia was merely a difference concerning who should lead the Muslim community. The Shia, however, not only preferred the family of the Prophet in their choice of leadership but also with regard to the Hadith literature. What was the result? The interpretation of Hadith is an Islamic science for Shia and Sunnis. The Shia give preference to the Hadith as narrated by Ali and Fatima and their close associates. The Sunnis consider the Hadith narrated by any of twelve thousand companions equally. This ultimately led to a different understanding of Islam. Sunni Muslims tend to follow the opinion of the 1st and 2nd Century (7th and 8th century Gregorian calendar) scholars Hanbali, Hanafi, Maliki and Shaafii. The Shia believe only a living scholar must be followed. Sunni Muslims pray five times a day, whereas Shia Muslims can combine prayers to pray three times a day. Shia prayers can often be identified by a small tablet of clay, from a holy place (often Karbala), on which they place their forehead whilst prostrating in prayer. The practice of Muttah marriage, a temporary marriage, is also permitted in Shia Islam but Sunnis considered it forbidden as they believe the Prophet abolished it. The relationship between Sunni and Shia Muslims through the ages has shaped their contemporary political landscape. The persecution of the family of the Prophet particularly and the early Shia followers has been a paradigm of martyrdom throughout Shia Islam's history. The majority of Sunni and Shia do not let their differences allow them to cast each other out of Islam. At the institutional level Shaikh Mahmood Shaltoot of Al-Azhar, Cairo, the oldest institution of Islamic learning, considers Shia Islam to be an equally valid school of thought, along with the four Sunni schools. Reference A History of the Arab Peoples, Hourani, Albert, pub. 1991, Faber and Faber Ltd -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Iran Jews celebrate Persian roots, seek to maintain shrinking community From, based on report by The Associated Press Members of Iran's tiny Jewish minority gathered at the holy shrine of the Prophet Daniel in the southwest of the country Thursday to celebrate their Persian roots and keep alive a dwindling community. More than 200 Iranian Jews embarked on the long journey to Susa from cities across Iran to celebrate their Jewishness in an event organized by a local Jewish youth group to support the community. "This gathering helps promote unity, affection and friendship among Iranian Jews. We are determined to pay homage to Daniel once a year," said Bahador Michael, 26, of the Yaran organization that began organizing the trips five years ago. "It has been a great success and local authorities have been very cooperative." Iran's 25,000 Jews, the largest community in the Middle East outside Israel, face no restriction on their religious practice, though they must follow Islamic dress codes such as head scarves for women. Jewish population in Iran, however, has been shrinking from emigration to Israel, the United States and elsewhere. Before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, nearly 100,000 Jews lived in Iran. Just in December, some 40 Jews secretly immigrated to Israel in a trip sponsored by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, a charity receiving millions of dollars from evangelical donors each year. Jewish leaders in Iran denied that it was an organized immigration. "Prophet Daniel is the symbol of our proud Persian roots. The gathering in Susa is to highlight our presence in Iran since ancient times," said Farhad Aframian, the editor of the monthly Jewish magazine, who described the gathering as an opportunity for Jews from all over the country to socialize and keep in touch. Inside the shrine, Jewish women sat reciting verses from the Torah, while nearby men in skull cups prayed loudly in Hebrew. "I feel and peace when I pray here," said Parviz Minaei, a 50-year-old retiree. In addition to the tomb of the Prophet Daniel, Iran is also home to another of Judaism's important sites, the shrine of Mordechai an Esther, who became a Persian queen and persuaded King Xerxes not to slaughter the Jews in an event subsequently celebrated by the festival of Purim -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Iranian TV Series on the Holocaust By Nasser Karimi, September 16, 2007 on The Huffington Post TEHRAN, Iran — It is Iran's version of "Schindler's List," a miniseries that tells the tale of an Iranian diplomat in Paris who helps Jews escape the Holocaust _ and viewers across the country are riveted.That's surprising enough in a country where hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has questioned whether the Holocaust even took place. What's more surprising is that government media produced the series, and is airing it on state-run television.The Holocaust is rarely mentioned in state media in Iran, school textbooks don't discuss it and Iranians have little information about it.Yet the series titled "Zero Degree Turn" is clearly sympathetic to the Jews' plight during World War II. It shows men, women and children with yellow stars on their clothes being taken forcibly out of their homes and loaded into trucks by Nazi soldiers. “Where are they taking them?" the horrified hero, a young Iranian diplomat who works at the Iranian Embassy in Paris, asks someone in a crowd of onlookers."The Fascists are taking the Jews to the concentration camps," the man says. The hero, named Habib Parsa, then begins giving Iranian passports to Jews to allow them to flee occupied France to then-Palestine.Though the Habib character is fictional, it is based on a true story of diplomats in the Iranian Embassy in Paris in the 1940s who gave out about 500 Iranian passports for Jews to use to escape. The show's appearance now may reflect an attempt by Iran's leadership to moderate its image as anti-Semitic and to underline a distinction that Iranian officials often make _ that their conflict is with Israel, not with the Jewish people. About 25,000 Jews live in Iran, the largest Jewish community in the Middle East after Israel. They have one representative in parliament, which is run mostly by Islamic clerics.The series could not have aired without being condoned by Iran's clerical leadership. The state broadcaster is under the control of the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khomenei, who has final say in all matters inside Iran.Moderate conservatives have been gaining ground in Iran, where there is increasing discontent with the ruling hardliners over rising tensions with the West, a worsening economy and price hikes in basic commodities.The government even allowed the series to break another taboo in Iran: For the first time, many actresses appear without the state-mandated Islamic dress code. The producers wanted to realistically portray 1940s Paris, and thus avoided the headscarves and head-to-foot robes that all women must normally wear on Iranian TV. Ahmadinejad sparked widespread outrage in 2005 when he made comments casting doubt on the Holocaust and saying the state of Israel should be "wiped from the map." His government organized a conference of Holocaust deniers and skeptics from around the world in December.But the series has won support even from hardliners. Some argue that it links the Holocaust with Israel's creation, thus boosting an argument by Ahmadinejad that if the Nazi killing of Jews did take place, the Palestinians who then lived in Palestine should not have had to pay the price for it by the creation of Israel after the war." The series differentiates between Jews and Zionism. The ground for forming Israel is prepared when Hitler's army puts pressure on activist Jews. In this sense, it considers Nazism parallel to Zionism," the hard-line newspaper Keyhan said.However, if the series does aim to make that point, it has not done so overtly.State media have said the series, which began in April, is popular. It has been a revelation for some Iranians and has pulled them away from more popular satellite channels, which are banned but which many watch anyway on illegal dishes. The fare on state TV is usually dry. "Once, I wept when I learned through the film what a dreadful destiny the small nation had during the world war in the heart of so-called civilized Europe," said Mahboubeh Rahamati, a Tehran bank teller.Kazem Gharibi said he watches the series every Monday on a TV in his grocery store."Through this film, I understood that Jews had a hard time in the war _ helpless and desperate, as we were when Iraq imposed war on us," he said, referring to the eight-year Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. The series began with a love story between Habib, the embassy employee, and a French Jew, Sara Stroke, in the early 1940s. Viewers say the love story pulls them in as much as the history.After Paris is occupied by the Nazis, Habib decides to forge Iranian passports for many French Jews to save them from the Holocaust _ starting with Sara and her family. The German government accepts his embassy's claim that the passport holders are from an Iranian tribe and lets them leave France.Habib is imprisoned by the Nazis for espionage after his forgeries are discovered. He then is released and returns to Tehran, where he is jailed again for forging passports.Eight episodes remain in the series, and viewers drawn by the love story are on edge as they await the finish."I have watched the series from the beginning," said Sedigheh Karandish, a housewife and mother of two. "It's pulling me in to see what these two people do at the end. Hopefully, it will be a happy ending." -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Minorities' Exodus Worries Leaders Of Fading Faiths By Thomas Erdbrink and Karin Brulliard Washington Post Foreign Service Saturday, March 1, 2008; A10 TEHRAN -- For decades the United States has funded an effort intended to help Christians, Zoroastrians and Jews escape persecution in Iran. Now some of their leaders are questioning American motives as sects that have endured here for thousands of years dwindle rapidly as a result of the migration. Since the late 1980s, the U.S. government has made it easier for certain foreigners fleeing religious oppression overseas, such as in the former Soviet Union or Indochina, to immigrate to America. But leaders of Iran's non-Muslim religious minority groups say their communities are not mistreated by the Iranian government, whose actions are overseen by Shiite Muslim clerics. Instead, some Christian and Zoroastrian leaders say, their members are leaving mainly to take advantage of the program's offer of a streamlined path to legal residence in the United States for a fee of $3,000. "Christians and Zoroastrians leave because of unemployment, the bad economy, but these problems affect all Iranians," said Yonathan Betkolia, an Assyrian Christian leader and member of Iran's parliament who holds the United States responsible for his community's decline. "They give all those green cards to our people. Their only goal is to propagate the idea that Iran is mistreating its minorities." The program is coordinated by the New York-based Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, or HIAS, which traditionally has helped resettle Jews in the United States. It received about $3.4 million in U.S. government funding last year to help non-Muslim minorities leave Iran. There are no reliable numbers on the sizes of those communities in Iran, a predominantly Shiite country of 65 million to 70 million that is also home to Muslim ethnic minorities, including Kurds, Arabs and Baluchis. According to a census taken in 1976, there were 420,000 non-Muslims in a population of nearly 34 million. Many non-Muslims fled the country after the 1979 Islamic revolution. Despite the Iranian government's bellicose approach to Israel, Jews here say they can practice their religion freely. More than 25,000 Jews remain in Iran, community leaders say, making it the largest Jewish population in the Middle East outside Israel. The State Department says 2,842 Jews have left Iran for the United States under the program in the past decade, compared with more than 18,000 members of other non-Muslim minority groups. More than 10,000 Iranians are waiting now to travel to Vienna, where HIAS facilitates their passage to the United States as refugees, according to a former U.S. official familiar with the program. "The migration is a big, big problem for all non-Muslim minorities in Iran," said Kurosh Niknam, a parliament member representing Iran's Zoroastrians, adherents of the pre-Islamic national faith that he estimates has shrunk by half since the 1979 revolution. "I wish everybody would come back to Iran, but I guess they won't. It looks like there will be no Zoroastrians left in this country in 30 years." HIAS was selected early this decade by the State Department to be the sole agency for processing Iranian minorities from Vienna, where it operates what it calls an "overseas processing entity." In 2004, Congress passed a law that made it easier for religious minorities from Iran to qualify as refugees. U.S. funding for HIAS's work on behalf of Iranians has almost tripled, from $1.24 million in 2002 to $3.46 million in 2007, because of an increase in applications. The United States, which is at odds with Iran over its nuclear ambitions and role in the war in Iraq, classifies Iran as one of eight "countries of particular concern" because of what the State Department calls severe violations of religious freedom. This designation "provides the substantive basis for running a refugee program for Iranian religious minorities," said Gideon Aronoff, chief executive of HIAS. "It speaks for itself that there are people who feel there is a need for this type of program to provide them with safety." One Armenian Christian businessman in Tehran, who spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to jeopardize his family's persecution-based application for legal U.S. residence, struggled to come up with a list of reasons to leave Iran. For more than a decade, he said, he had been looking for reasons to stay. "One, our Iranian passports are useless; we need visas for every country. Two, the Iranian economy is destroyed. Three, my daughters are forced to wear the Islamic head scarf," he said. The 2005 election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the businessman continued, had increased the sense of uncertainty. "There are foreign threats, there might be a war. We feel pressure every day." Sitting in his dining room, he took another sip of cognac, which like all other alcoholic drinks is illegal for Muslims to consume in Iran, and smiled wearily. "I guess our reasons for migrating are no different from other Iranians who want to go. But as Christians, it's so much easier for us to leave Iran." Betkolia, the Assyrian Christian parliament member, said he and his co-religionists were "freer in Iran than our Muslim brothers." The politician sat in his large office in the Assyrian club in Tehran. "We can drink, our boys and girls can mingle in our clubs freely and we can dance and sing," he said. "Muslims are not allowed to do those things in here." Members of the Bahai faith, however, face arrest and other forms of persecution, according to U.S. and other officials. Followers of Bahaism, which was founded in 19th-century Persia and emphasizes religious unity and racial equality, are not allowed to practice their religion or study at universities. The government regards the faith as heretical, while Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians are respected as being members of traditional monotheistic religions. In the Church of Prophet Joseph, one of the last 10 remaining Christian churches in Tehran, small events reminded Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Ramzi Garmo, 63, of the continuing exodus. An older clergyman entered the archbishop's office. "Two more papers, bishop," the man said. "Two more departures," Garmo concluded. He stamped the forms with his pastoral seal. "These papers prove that these youths are Assyrian Chaldean," he explained. "With this they can prove they are Christian during their interviews with HIAS in Vienna," Garmo said. "Last Christmas my church was half-empty, while some years ago even the courtyard would have been full," said Garmo, who is originally from Mosul, Iraq. He started preaching in Iran more than 31 years ago, when his diocese included 30,000 people. Now there are 3,000. "People don't realize they leave for a country where men can get married to men, abortions are legal and divorces are easy," the archbishop said. "Being a Christian in America is much harder than being a Christian in Iran, believe me." He glanced around the room, adorned with crosses and a portrait of Pope Benedict XVI, and fell silent. "But I should put myself in my congregation's place," he continued. "If an Iranian family can't afford to pay rent, is unemployed and is fearful of a war with America, who am I to forbid them from leaving?" Betkolia explained that two laws are problematic for members of minority religions in Iran. When a single family member converts to Islam, the Muslim is entitled to inherit all the family's property. A second law prescribes that a Muslim who kills a non-Muslim cannot receive the death penalty. "These rules date back to 70 years ago," Betkolia said, explaining that a similarly discriminatory statute on blood money was changed six years ago. "Those other laws are being reformed, but step by step," Betkolia said. The former U.S. official familiar with HIAS said persecution of non-Muslims continues. "The fact is that this regime treats religious minorities very poorly. It has acted viciously toward some of them," the former official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the program. "For Christians and others, it's a lower grade of persecution. They're treated like third-class citizens, day in and day out. If you are not a Shiite, you're going to face severe discrimination," he said. "Maybe people grow accustomed to it and may learn to live with it," the former official said. "But to say they're living an okay life and they're just economic refugees is ridiculous." The recent increase in applicants has caused a significant backlog, he said. "If the Iranians wanted to, they could stop cooperating and create trouble for the program." But according to some Iranian authorities, that would not happen. "There is no way that the Iranian government would block members of religious minorities from leaving. This would cause an international outcry," said Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a former vice president and a Shiite cleric. "If HIAS would open its doors for Muslims, lots of Iranians would leave for America. I guess the same would happen in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia," Abtahi said. "I am sad people of other faiths leave Iran. But for that to change, big problems which affect all Iranians need to be tackled." Brulliard reported from Washington.