NEW YORK, Dec. 23 (JTA) — A fervently Orthodox group is offering money to help Jews fleeing Iran enter the United States. On Dec. 12, Agudath Israel of America announced an agreement with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society to pay the $2,100 fee that Iranian Jews seeking refugee status in the United States must pay to cover their living expenses while their cases are processed in Vienna. Austria is the only European country that offers haven to Iranian religious minorities. More than 170 Iranian Jews — and many more Iranian Christians — are being held in Vienna while their applications for refugee status in the United States are pending. More may come forward if they learn that financial assistance is available, said Eric Newman, associate director of international operations at HIAS. The Austrian government insists that all refugees must have sponsorship from friends or family members abroad, and refuses to offer them government assistance. Because of these requirements, HIAS — the only international agency authorized by the U.S. government to process refugees in Vienna — requires a $2,100 deposit from each applicant. Agudath Israel, an advocacy and social service organization for “Torah-loyal” Jews, is prepared to help up to 1,000 refugees pay the fee, said Rabbi Shmuel Bloom, the group’s executive vice president. However, he said, Agudath expects that most of the Iranian Jews seeking refugee status have enough assets and family support to pay the amount themselves. HIAS has requested 306 visas for Jews still in Iran. Another 300 or so are still in the processing stages, Newman said. HIAS reports that 177 Jews are currently in Vienna waiting to make their way to the United States. But publicizing aid to Iranian Jewish refugees is not always well-advised: It’s illegal and dangerous for religious minorities to leave Iran, home to somewhere between 22,000 and 25,000 Jews. Indeed, advocates in the Iranian Jewish community in the United States — the largest contingent is in Los Angeles — praise Agudath Israel’s offer, but fear the publicity could endanger Jews trying to leave the country. With the prospect of an American-led war on Iraq raising tensions in the region, some fear that the Iranian government will use any excuse to clamp down on religious minorities. Indeed, 10 Iranian Jews were sentenced in July 2000 to jail terms of four to 13 years on charges they allegedly spied for Israel. Five currently remain in jail. The fee is only one in a series of difficulties that Iranian Jews must overcome to receive asylum in the United States. The process begins when someone in the United States contacts HIAS requesting a travel visa for an Iranian Jew. To discourage smuggling, HIAS demands that Iranians have legitimate visas before leaving the country. After family members or friends contact HIAS, the agency submits the names to the U.S. government, which must complete extensive background checks. This process has been prolonged significantly since Sept. 11 because of security concerns. If the U.S. government approves, HIAS requests that a travel visa to Vienna be made available at the Austrian Embassy in Iran, where there is no U.S. Embassy. Since it is illegal to emigrate from Iran, the agencies involved try to keep a low profile. The Iranian government can be obstructionist, sometimes refusing to issue passports to all family members in the hopes that those leaving feel compelled to return. If the refugees do get the visas to Austria, they must arrange for their own travel. Once in Europe, they apply for the U.S. refugee program. All Iranian religious minorities are eligible for the program because of religious persecution in Iran. In July 2001, the State Department chose HIAS to be the sole agency working with Iranian refugees in Vienna. The group historically has focused on Jewish immigration, but as a federal contractor it is required to treat all individuals equally. HIAS also deals with other Iranian religious minorities in Vienna, such as Christians, Bahais and Zoroastrians. The largest group applying for refugee status are Christians. Jews are the second largest group; the 177 in Vienna make up about 15 percent of the total refugee population there, according to Newman. Religious refugees from Iran also can go through Turkey or Pakistan. Since no visa is required to enter those two countries, refugees may travel there freely and apply for asylum once they arrive, but HIAS discourages the option. In Turkey, refugees are required to have a “referral from the U.N. High Commission on Refugees, which is hard to obtain,” according to Mark Hetfield, HIAS’ director of international operations. Pakistan is considered too dangerous, as “refugees have disappeared en route,” he said. This compels the majority to go through Vienna, and everyone must pay the same fee. The financial support from Agudath Israel is available only to Jews. However, both Agudath Israel and HIAS have encouraged other religious groups to offer aid to refugees. “We have no problem with the fact that they are a religious organization. In fact, there are many religious Jews in Iran who might be induced into leaving by the fact that a religious organization will fund their flight,” said Pooya Dayanim, president of the Iranian Jewish Public Affairs Committee and the acting spokesman for the Council of Iranian American Jewish Organizations. “We just hope that Agudath doesn’t only choose religiously observant Jews from Iran, but allows us to recommend to them others who could really use the help,” Dayanim said. Agudath Israel has “been helpful to any Jew who wants to come from Iran,” Bloom responded. “Our mission is a mission of community service.” However, whenever possible the organization attempts to make arrangements for the refugees to go to a religious community, Bloom said. “Another hat that we wear is to try to set up Orthodox communities” in the United States, he said. While the Shah was in power, Agudath Israel helped Jewish religious students to leave Iran when they were not allowed to practice their religion freely. Many of them are now spiritual leaders of Iranian Jewish communities in the United States, Bloom said. One is Rabbi Reuben Khaver in Baltimore. He maintains that Agudath Israel “is committed to helping the Iranian Jews” out of concern for their safety, not to proselytize. Most Iranians seeking visas probably don’t need Agudath’s financial aid, Khaver said, suggesting that it “should be used only for those really in need, in small communities.” Bloom described the money not as a grant but as “a loan or a layout.” While it may take families some time to pull together the $2,100, Agudath Israel assumes most have enough resources to pay the loan back eventually. “We’re just using our credit to allow Iranians to come out faster,” he said. “Until they come up with cash, they can’t get out. “We don’t expect to have to come up with millions of dollars to make that happen,” he continued. If the organization ends up donating more money than expected, “our board members, many of whom are Holocaust survivors or children of Holocaust survivors, unanimously and emotionally support the measure” and are willing to put up the money, Bloom said. Hetfield praised Agudath Israel for “filling an important vacuum,” and said he hopes the agreement will inspire other groups to follow suit.
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