Saturday, 14 March 2009

Religious Intelligence: New Zealand gives asylum to Iranian convert

By: George Conger.New Zealand has granted asylum to an Iranian convert to Christianity, holding that Ali Panah would likely face persecution for his religious beliefs if forced to return to Iran.

On Feb 13 the Refugee Status Appeals Authority ended Panah’s five-year fight to avoid deportation to Iran, and also overturns earlier New Zealand court rulings which implied that Christian converts from Islam were not persecuted by the Iranian government.

Panah has been held in administrative custody for 20 months for refusing to sign papers that could lead to his expulsion and had staged a 52-day hunger strike before being paroled into the custody of the Anglican Church of New Zealand last year. He had won the backing of Archbishop David Moxon who pleaded for the government to exercise clemency on his behalf, saying that returning Panah to Iran “would be unsafe.”In its pleadings with the court, the Immigration Service contested Panah’s assertion that he would be persecuted if returned to Iran. On Sept 3, 2007, Immigration Minister David Cunliffe stated “there’s been no reported case of a deportee being killed or severely persecuted on return to Iran.”However, legislation brought by the government of President Mahmoud Amadinejad before the Iranian Majlis last year now imposes the death penalty for apostates from Islam.

Panah’s lawyer, Grant Illingworth, QC hailed the court’s decision telling the New Zealand Herald that his client would likely be “punished for apostasy,” which is “punishable by the death penalty."The Iranian apostasy law likely swayed the court in Panah’s favour, as two other appellate courts have backed the government and its claim that Iran does not persecute Christian converts.
While skeptics have questioned Panah’s conversion, claiming it was an act of expediency, the Anglican Church of New Zealand has backed Panah, offering him shelter and support throughout the proceedings.

Archbishop Moxon along with Anglicans close to Mr Panah have vouched for the veracity of his conversion.Following the verdict, Panah said: "I am very happy about the decision, it means a new life for me in New Zealand ... and I really want to thank everyone who has prayed for me and supported me."

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