Religious liberty advocates applauded a European court’s ruling in favor of asylum for an individual fleeing life-threatening anti-conversion laws in Iran, on the grounds that his security must be taken into account.

“Asylum should be granted to individuals who are being persecuted and fear for their lives because of converting to a different religion,” said Roger Severino, director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation.

“Iran’s anti-conversion laws violate the fundamental human right to be able to choose your own religion and live out your beliefs, which includes the right to change your religion without the government threatening imprisonment or in the case of Iran, death for apostasy,” he told CNA.

Severino was responding to a European Court of Human Rights decision in F.G. v Sweden that Sweden must assess the dangers to an Iranian citizen who converted from Islam to Christianity if he is denied asylum and forced to return back to Iran.

“Unfortunately, many people who live in totalitarian societies and convert to a religion not sanctioned by the state live in hiding because they feel threatened for doing so,” Severino said. “They are forced to flee and seek asylum elsewhere because they want to live freely and be safe.”  

In 2009, an Iranian citizen applied for asylum and a resident permit in Sweden after suffering political persecution for opposing the Iranian regime. But two years later, the Swedish Migration Office denied his request, which he appealed.

In January 2014, a lower chamber of the court ruled that Sweden’s denial was justified because the applicant’s life was not in jeopardy, since Iranian authorities were unaware of his conversion and he could keep his faith private.

ADF International then filed a brief on behalf of the Iranian citizen with the European Human Court of Human Rights, arguing that the lower court’s decision violated his religious freedom and that converts to Christianity face numerous threats in the country.

According to the U.S. State Department’s 2014 religious freedom report on Iran, “Christians, particularly evangelicals, continued to experience disproportionate levels of arrests and high levels of harassment and surveillance.” The U.N. Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran also reported “that authorities held at least 49 Protestant Christians in custody, many for involvement in informal house churches.”

Robert Clarke, director of European Advocacy for ADF International, told CNA, that “the lower chamber (of the court) underestimated the severe danger to this convert’s life.”  He said that the Grand Chamber grasped the real threat facing Christian converts.

“In its judgement, the Grand Chamber rightly noted that Christian converts are one of the most persecuted religious minorities in Iran. Moreover, the Islamic regime governing Iran has systematic mechanisms in place to identify all Christian converts — even those practicing in secret,” Clarke said.

“If a convert to Christianity is identified by the Iranian government, he or she is very likely to suffer substantial harm, deprivation of liberty, assaults and continual harassment. In the worst case the individual could face severe ill-treatment or death,” he warned.

The Grand Chamber ruled that Sweden would be violating Articles 2 and 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protect life and safeguard against inhumane treatment, if it deported the applicant.

“The applicant’s conversion to Christianity is a criminal offence punishable by death in Iran. In addition to the risk of social persecution as a Christian, the applicant risks criminal prosecution for the crime of apostasy,” the judgment states. “The order for the applicant’s deportation to Iran, where he could be tried under the above-mentioned criminal and procedural law, equates to a violation of principles deeply enshrined in the universal legal conscience.”

Severino said that governments with anti-conversion laws are motivated by a desire to control their citizens.

“These states with anti-conversion laws fear religious freedom. Ultimately, it is a matter of control because if there is something higher than the state, then the state has less control and less power,” Severino said. “The question then becomes: ‘Who do you pledge allegiance to: God or the state?’”  

However, he said, the government has nothing to fear from people changing religions. “What they actually should fear are the divisions they are causing by forcing people to be hypocrites and violate their conscience.”

Severino also encouraged the United States to continue its tradition of embracing immigrants in need.

“Western countries should absolutely be open to taking people in who are facing this sort of oppression and this kind of violation of their human rights,” he said.

“America is about providing refuge and shelter. That is part of our history and our DNA. It is one of the best parts of American society,” he concluded. “People who are persecuted because of their faith can come to America and live in freedom and that is a tradition that needs to be reinforced and continued.”  

Photo credit: Boris Stroujko via