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Compass – A family of four Iranian converts to Christianity received a last-minute reprieve from forcible deportation back to Iran by Turkish authorities over the past week. The exceptional turnaround was attributed to direct U.S. intervention in their case. Zivar Khademian and her three adult children faced an October 20 deadline to leave Turkey or be sent back to Iran , where they faced probable arrest and the death sentence for apostasy.

The widowed Khademian, together with her daughter Fatemeh Moini, 19, and sons Hossein and Kazem Moini, both in their early 30s, were baptized by a Protestant church in Tehran shortly before they fled Iran in January 2003. After nearly three years of failed attempts to obtain U.N. refugee status through the Ankara offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the family was unsure where to turn when Turkish police delivered their ultimatum on October 5 and handed back their passports.

Over the next few days, the family’s inquiries about possible visas to Syria, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Northern Cyprus or even Singapore revealed only bleak options – all of them temporary and expensive.

But then the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly Refuge Legal Aid Program (hCa RLAP) agreed to examine the case. After conducting an extensive interview with Kazem Moini on October 13, RLAP wrote a three-page urgent appeal against the family’s deportation.

By October 17 the appeal document had been faxed to both the UNHCR in Ankara and the Turkish Interior Ministry. Meanwhile, Hossein Moini boarded a bus to Kastamonu, where the family had lived the past two years, hand-carrying the original document to the governor of Kastamonu for his signature. He obtained the signature on the morning of October 18.

The governor’s office instructed him to take the signed appeal to the security police in Kastamonu, to be forwarded to their Ankara headquarters. But the police refused to take the document, declaring that the family’s case was closed. “You will have to take it to Ankara yourself,” an officer told Moini.

Confused, Moini returned to Istanbul . On the morning of October 19, the family received the first telephone call from the UNHCR, advising them to bring the signed appeal letter to Turkey ’s General Directorate of Security in Ankara .

On RLAP’s advice, however, the family instead sent copies of the appeal to Ankara by fax and courier, rather than appearing in person at police headquarters just one day before they were to be legally subject to arrest and deportation.

Although nothing was given to the family in writing, the UNHCR informed them by telephone that U.S. officials wanted to interview them for possible admission to the United States . The UNHCR then confirmed to RLAP that the Turkish authorities had been requested to authorize the family to remain in Turkey until the outcome of that interview.

By October 21, UNHCR representatives had confirmed to both the family and RLAP that they were scheduled to be interviewed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) three days later, on October 24.

Under the auspices of the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC) in Istanbul , the family went through an initial eligibility interview on October 24. In an exception to normal policy, a second interview was conducted later that same day by a DHS officer.

They were promptly issued individual letters on ICMC letterhead, certifying that they were under consideration for U.S. refugee resettlement. The family was then advised to telephone the UNHCR in Ankara in the second week of November, after the end of the Muslim holiday, for information regarding their visa approval.

To date, the family has been given no indication how long a process could be required for them to leave Turkey for resettlement in the United States , should their case be approved.

The family’s applications for refugee status were turned down twice by the UNHCR in Ankara , despite proof that one son had been jailed merely for possessing and duplicating Christian tapes. The mother had also obtained the original copy of an order for her arrest issued last October by the Supreme Court of Iran for committing apostasy, a capital crime in Iran .

According to Kazem Moini, the interpreter for his UNHCR interview “was neither objective nor professional, and he questioned my motives for conversion from Islam to Christianity.”

The RLAP urgent appeal concluded that Moini and his family “continue to have an enduring, well-founded fear of persecution in the Islamic Republic of Iran.”