Three Iranians Seeking Conversion to Judaism Denied Israel Visas

Now in Turkey awaiting UN hearing on request for refugee status; in Iran, converting to Judaism is punishable by death.

Three Iranians interested in converting to Judaism recently left their native country, but have been unable to find any entity to assist them.

The three Shi'ite Muslims left Iran and approached the Israeli embassy and Jewish communities in Azerbaijan, but were rejected. It is impossible to convert to Judaism in Iran, as they would be considered heretics, a crime punishable by death. They are now waiting in a makeshift city in Turkey for a United Nations hearing on their application for refugee status.

The three left Iran two months ago and immediately approached the Israeli embassy in Baku. According to N., they were given a chilly reception. N. points out that embassy officials did not invite them into the building, but talked to them on the street.

"We told them we want visas to Israel in order to convert," N. recounts. "They told us that if we are not Jewish, our parents aren't Jewish and we have no family members in Israel, we cannot get visas."

The three also did not receive warm welcomes in Baku synagogues. At one place of worship, they were laughed at, at another - locked out. They were told there is no rabbinical court that can handle conversion in Baku.

N. says he became interested in other religions while still a practicing Shi'ite, and learned that Judaism was the basis of the other religions. N. wrote to the United Nations: "Since I stopped obeying the Muslim commandments, my soul has sought a way home. In order to be a complete Jew, it is necessary to undergo official processes."

Iran does not officially allow its citizens to travel to Israel, although many of the 25,000-strong Jewish community have done so through Turkey.

The three potential converts are now waiting for a February hearing date, and dependent on financial help from their families. "The Iranian authorities are aware of our plans. They can't hurt us so they are trying to harm our families." They hope to get assistance from some Israeli or Jewish institutions.

Contact with the three is mostly through e-mail and the occasional phone call from N., who always verifies at the beginning of each call that recent e-mails really originated in Israel and not with Iranian security forces.

The Foreign Ministry stated that the three approached the Baku embassy on a weekend when offices were closed, and have not returned. They would have been helped during regular office hours. The ministry also noted that Israeli law prohibits entry to Israel for the purposes of conversion, although there is an appeals committee to examine specific cases.