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Iranian football protester granted refugee status

A Seoul court has granted refugee status to an Iranian who hoisted a banner reading “Free Iran” in a soccer stadium in 2009, as Iran was engulfed by anti-government demonstrations.

The 28-year-old Iranian, whose name was not disclosed for safety reasons, was born to a Muslim family and grew up as a Muslim but decided to convert to Christianity at 16, inspired by his Christian teacher, Yonhap news agency reported on Thursday, citing the Seoul Administrative Court.

About 99 percent of Iran’s population is Muslim and Christians or converts from Islam face harsh punishment.

The Iranian entered Korea in April, 2009, and has since attended a Christian church, studying the Bible.

In June, the same year, anti-government rallies in Iran turned violent after a presidential election which was criticized for irregularities. Many protesters died in the subsequent police crackdown.

In Seoul in the same month, the Iranian demonstrated alone against the government in Tehran, displaying a banner in the stands of the Sangam World Cup Stadium where Iran had a preliminary World Cup soccer match with South Korea.

Officials who accompanied the Iranian team strongly protested his demonstration and took pictures of him. International news media reported on Iranians who demonstrated in and around the stadium.

In October, last year, the man filed a lawsuit requesting the reversal of the Justice Ministry’s decision to deny him refugee status. He cited in the suit that he would be persecuted politically and religiously if he went back to Iran.

“Considering that the Iranian government officials took photos of him and that international news outlets reported Iranian demonstrators at that time, his protest is expected to have a significant influence on the Iranian government,” the court ruled. “If he is repatriated, he is very likely to receive a harsh penalty for his anti-government activities.”

The court said that it could hardly believe that freedom of religious conversion would be guaranteed for the plaintiff. It added it considered that persecution against converts or Christians in Iran was more severe than ever.

By Chun Sung-woo (swchun@heraldcorp.com)
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