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. (MORE)