Ali Panah should be treated with humanity, not xenophobia

Last updated 00:00 10/09/2007

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John Minto

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I hadn't heard the expression "rice Christian" until a couple of months back. It refers to someone who claims Christianity to gain a benefit – such as rice from missionaries in earlier times.

Here in New Zealand we are not in the habit of questioning the personal religious beliefs of others. For most of us the idea of classifying someone as a "rice Christian" as opposed to being a "real Christian" would be repugnant, and rightly so.

Religious beliefs are a personal matter – of no justifiable interest to the State and neither should they be. In Iran, of course, they are the centre of public interest. Religious minorities, Christians included, are under increasing pressure. A couple of weeks ago a man found with a Bible in his car was given 34 lashes.

Iranian Ali Panah finds himself caught up in this debate with his commitment to Christianity being very publicly questioned by Minister of Immigration David Cunliffe.

Panah arrived here and claimed refugee status but his application failed. Cunliffe says Panah has been given a full and fair hearing through multiple appeals, with Panah's testimony being rejected as implausible and not credible.

The Refugee Status Appeals Authority came to this conclusion after pointing to what they described as inconsistencies in his story. The Government has directed reporters to the RSAA website where refugee decisions are available for public perusal.

There are no names but with a discreet word to the right journalist the relevant decision has been dissected and the details of his case made public. The most interesting thing is that most of these discrepancies, if not all, appear to be relatively minor and clearly explainable. However, even accepting those findings at face value does not address the problem for people in Panah's situation.

From those directly associated with him over the past few years – his workmates, his parish vicar and his fellow Anglican parishioners – he is a devout Christian man. Catholic priest Father Terry Dibble, for example, is a chaplain at Mount Eden Prison where he says mass once a week for Catholic prisoners. He also runs a scripture study session at the prison on a Friday where Panah is a regular attendee.

Dibble describes Panah as a deeply religious person, well versed in the Bible with his copy being a translation into his first tongue – Farsi.

A woman has also come forward to say that her conversion to Christianity came after Panah took her to attend a service at his church. Similar comments about his deep commitment to his faith have come from all those who know him as a real person, as opposed to those who met him briefly to question him as a suspicious refugee.

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The solution for the Government has been there all along and still goes unheeded. It's the simple action of issuing a temporary visa to Panah (and the tiny number of others in his situation) to allow him to be a productive member of the community instead of costing huge sums to taxpayer through incarceration. Such a visa would enable him to remain here until it is safe for him to return to Iran.

This is the solution proposed by groups such as Amnesty International. They say outright it is unsafe for these people to be returned to Iran.

Australia we usually think of as a country which treats refugees very poorly, but it has several dozen Iranian Christian converts who have been given temporary visas to live and work in the interim along with the opportunity to apply for permanent residence in the longer term.

Other countries such as the United Kingdom, Canada, Belgium and Holland have similar policies. Not here under Labour however.

The Government says it worries about a big influx of dodgy Christian converts, but where is the evidence? Australia hasn't seen a problem so who is Cunliffe kidding? Most potential refugees are prevented from getting onto a plane to New Zealand in the first place.

When the Minister of Immigration says New Zealanders don't have the full story, he's right. If the Government showed a bit more humanity and a bit less attention to the xenophobic elements in New Zealand First it would be a relief to us all.

One Iranian is still in prison. Amir Mohebbi – detained for over three years – is the longest serving remand prisoner in the history of New Zealand. He had a High Court hearing for bail on August 23. We should hope the court will step in humanely where the Government has failed.

Mohebbi's three New Zealand children (aged three, five and seven) will be delighted to have their dad home again.

David Cunliffe will be annoyed and the Government will appeal against any decision to grant bail as they have in previous cases.

Even a rice Christian can see there's nothing Christian about that.

- The Press

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