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US watchdog group decries status of religious minorities in Iran

A US religious freedom watchdog commission says it is "deeply concerned" about what it calls a worsening situation for religious minorities in Iran.

"A consistent stream of virulent and inflammatory statements by political and religious leaders and an increase of harassment, imprisonment, and physical attacks against these groups is clear evidence of a disturbing, renewed pattern of oppression," the US Commission on International Religious Freedom said in a statement.

The commission, created in 1998 by the US Congress to monitor the status of freedom of thought and of religious practice outside the United States, provides independent policy recommendations to the US government.

Michael Cromartie, the chairman of the commission, said the pattern of rhetoric in Iran appeared to be similar to that during the early years of the Iranian revolution which, he said, preceded years of severe human rights violations against members of non-Islamic religious minorities, particularly the Baha’i community.

Cromartie said that in recent months members of Iran’s Baha’i community have again been harassed, physically attacked, arrested and detained.

"Christians in Iran increasingly have been subject to harassment, arrests, close surveillance, and imprisonment," says the statement carried on the US commission’s Web site on 27 February.

"Over the past year, there have been several incidents of Iranian authorities raiding church services, detaining worshippers and church leaders, and harassing and threatening church members." It cited an evangelical pastor who remained in prison even after being acquitted by an Islamic court on charges of apostasy, or rejection of faith.

Conditions for religious minorities were already severe before Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad assumed office in August but have since worsened, Cromartie said.

Ahmadinejad and other leading Iranian government officials have triggered international condemnation during their first six months in office for public remarks either casting doubt or denying the Holocaust against European Jews during the period of the Second World War.

The commission urged the US government to accelerate efforts to address the human rights situation in Iran, though it acknowledged there are few available policy options because the United States does not have direct diplomatic relations with Iran.

(c) Ecumenical News International