Complex facts on persecution hiding behind that Muslim Ban hashtag

The late 1980s were dark times for Jews trying to flee persecution in the fading Soviet Union.

Finally, the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) acted, adding language to a massive 1990 appropriations bill to offer special assistance to refugees in persecuted religious minorities. Year after year, the Lautenberg amendment has been extended to provide a lifeline to Jews, Baha'is, Christians and others fleeing persecution in Iran, the former Soviet bloc and parts of Asia.

"There's nothing new about the United States taking religion into account when it's clear that refugees are part of persecuted minority groups," said Samuel Tadros, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom. He also teaches at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

"Tragically, religion is part of the refugee crises we see around the world right now and that certainly includes what's happening in Syria and Iraq."

Thus, Tadros and a few other religious-freedom activists paid close attention -- during the #MuslimBan firestorm surrounding President Donald Trump's first actions on immigration -- when they saw language in the executive order that was more nuanced than the fiery rhetoric in the headlines.

In social media, critics were framing everything in reaction to this blunt presidential tweet: "Christians in the Middle-East have been executed in large numbers. We cannot allow this horror to continue!" Trump also told the Christian Broadcasting Network: "If you were a Christian in Syria, it was impossible, at least very tough, to get into the United States. … If you were a Muslim, you could come in."

However, the wording of the executive order proposed a different agenda, stating that the "Secretary of State, in consultation with the Secretary of Homeland Security, is further directed to make changes, to the extent permitted by law, to prioritize refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual's country of nationality."

The New York Times, however, summarized this part of the order by saying it "gives preferential treatment to Christians who try to enter the United States from majority-Muslim nations."

The blasphemy iceberg is much bigger than Charlie Hebdo

The drama began when a Pakistani politician named Salman Taseer criticized the land's blasphemy laws that were being used to condemn Asia Bibby, a Christian convert.

This led to a man named Malik Qadri firing 20 rounds into Taseer's back, according to witnesses, while security guards assigned to the Punjab governor stood and watched the assassination. When Qadri went to trial, cheering crowds showered him with rose pedals. Later, radicals threatened the judge who found Qadri guilty.

The judge, of course, had committed blasphemy by passing judgment on the man who killed a Muslim politician who -- by criticizing the blasphemy laws and defending an apostate -- had committed blasphemy.

"Then you get the question: Can you defend the judge or would that be blasphemous? We are starting to get here very like a Monty Python element," noted human-rights scholar Paul Marshall, speaking on "Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech and Freedom of Religion" at The King's College in New York City.

This kind of tragedy on the other side of the world is not what most Americans and Europeans think about when they worry about violence inspired by accusations of blasphemy, said Marshall, who currently teaches at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University in Jakarta, Indonesia. 

Connecting Baha'i dots in Iran

Anyone who reads the newspaper Kayhan knows that Baha'i believers are part of a giant conspiracy against Iran that has, at one time or another, included England, Russia, Israel and the CIA.

Baha'is also embrace alcohol, pork, gambling and adultery.

Human rights activists are studying this new wave of hate for one reason -- the Islamic Republic of Iran runs Kayhan. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei picks the managing editor. So there's more to these headlines than ink and paper.

"When Iran has a new enemy, it never takes long for them to connect that enemy to us," said Kit Bigelow, external affairs director for the Baha'i faith in the United States. "It used to be Russian and Britain, then it was Israel and the Zionists. Now, it's the United States. ... We can see certain dots being connected right now in Iran, even though we can't say for sure that we can see cause and effect. It's foreboding."

Here are some of the dots the experts are connecting.

Iranian officials recently arrested 54 Baha'is and their supporters involved in a UNICEF community service project in Shiraz, even though the young people obtained a permission letter for their project from the local Islamic Council. Last week, 51 of them were released on bail, although they have not been formally charged with a crime.

The three young people still in jail "were not the leaders, in any sense of the word" and no one knows why they have been singled out, said Bigelow. Other arrests during the past year have followed this pattern -- mysterious arrests, demands for bail and no formal charges. Meanwhile, Iranian police also raided six Baha'i homes and collected computers, books, notebooks and other documents.

"We think this is part of a strategy to keep the Baha'i community off balance, to keep us on tenterhooks," said Bigelow.

But nothing alarmed Baha'is more than the disclosure this spring of a confidential 2005 letter sent to the Iranian Ministry of Information, the Revolutionary Guard and police. It said the "Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, had instructed the Command headquarters to identify persons who adhere to the Baha'i faith and monitor their activities," according to a statement by Asma Jahangir of Pakistan, Special Rapporteur on religious liberty for the United Nations. The letter asked the "recipients to, in a highly confidential manner, collect any and all information about members of the Baha'i faith."

Anti-Defamation League director Abraham Foxman connected the dots and detected what he believes is a horrifying pattern.

"These actions ... are reminiscent of the steps taken against Jews in Europe and a dangerous step toward the institution of Nuremberg-type laws," said Foxman, a Holocaust survivor. "This clear attempt to step-up persecution of the Baha'i community in Iran sets a dangerous precedent" and has raised the historic persecution of Iran's largest religious minority "to the next level."

These strong words may provide little comfort, since Iranian leaders already claim the Baha'is are agents for Zionism.

Part of the problem is that the Baha'i faith, which proclaims the unity of all religions, also has unique ties to Islam and Iran. The faith began with a leader known as the Bab, who claimed a direct lineage from Muhammad. He predicted the coming of a new prophet, but was executed in 1850 in Tabriz.

Baha'is believe this new prophet -- the successor to Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad and others -- was Baha'ullah, who was born in 1817 in Tehran. He was persecuted and repeatedly banished to Baghdad, Constantinople and, finally, Palestine. He died in 1892 and his tomb, and the Bab's tomb, is in a shrine near the Baha'i headquarters in Haifa.

Thus, Iran insists that Baha'i believers are both apostates and heretics, Thus, the faith is a sect that does not deserve the recognition and rights that the Islamic republic grants to Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians.

"They believe that the Baha'i faith is not a valid, independent world religion in its own right," said Bigelow, who is a convert from Christianity. "And, of course, our holy shrine is located in what has become the modern state of Israel. So when Baha'is around the world, including thousands of Baha'is in Iran, send money to help support this shrine and our work they are sending money to Israel. You can imagine what the current leaders of Iran think of that."