Fri, Nov 30, 2018 - Page 5 News List

S Korea grants Christian convert from Iran asylum

AFP, SEOUL

An Iranian teenager who converted to Christianity has been granted refugee status in South Korea after a campaign by his classmates in Seoul.

The boy, who can only be identified by his adopted Christian name, Antonio, out of concerns for his safety, traveled to South Korea in 2010 as a seven-year-old with his father.

Two years later, he became a Catholic, and his father followed suit in 2015, which infuriated relatives in Iran, where apostasy by a Muslim can be punishable by death.

The pair sought religious asylum in their new abode, but South Korea grants refugee status to only a tiny fraction of those who apply. The world’s 11th-biggest economy accepted just 708 refugees from 2000 to last year — a mere 3.5 percent of total requests, one of the lowest rates in the world and far below the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average of 25 percent.

Immigration authorities in Seoul rejected Antonio’s asylum bid, saying he was too young to have religious faith, a decision upheld by the South Korean Supreme Court.

With Antonio facing the prospect of deportation to an uncertain fate, his classmates stepped in, launching a petition on the presidential Web site, describing his faith as sincere and saying he was still going to church.

A final chance to reapply for asylum, they said, was “like a ray of hope from heaven.”

With a GDP per capita of US$30,000, they asked: “Could South Korea not embrace this one single soul?”

The petition was eventually signed by more than 30,000 people.

About 50 students accompanied Antonio when he returned to the immigration office and they staged a sit-in.

“People threw all kinds of slurs and insults at us and our parents online, and some of us were a bit scared,” said Antonio’s classmate Choi Hyun-joon, who staged a protest in front of the presidential Blue House.

Critics complained to the school and city authorities, saying the establishment should remain neutral, teacher Oh Heun-rok said.

“The very essence of education is to protect the dignity of humankind and humanitarianism is a part of that,” Oh said.

Immigration authorities granted Antonio refugee status last month.

Antonio and his father declined to speak to reporters about the decision, not wanting to prejudice a Supreme Court ruling on the father’s own asylum application.

Kim Yeon-ju, a rights advocate at the Seoul-based Refugee Rights Centre, told reporters that refugees generally get little support from South Korea’s civic society, while a handful of Christians “may be a bit more willing to help.”

“So Christian refugees may have better access to the services provided by these faith-based activists,” Kim said, but it remains “very limited.”

The unusual, high-profile campaign by Antonio’s friends might have played a role in the decision on his application, she said.

With Antonio’s asylum approved, his classmates hope their efforts could encourage greater social tolerance toward refugees.

There was “no political or religious repression” in South Korea, they said in a statement, but asked: “Does that mean that we should just shut ourselves up and say refugees are not our problem?”

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