CEDAR RAPIDS | Christian refugees from religious persecution in Southeast Asia are eyeing the Iowa Juvenile Home at Toledo for a Bible college and seminary.

“It’s a long shot,” said Randy Mason, pastor of Liberty Baptist Church in Marshalltown, who has been working with a community of 200 to 300 refugees from the Myanmar state of Chin who settled in Marshalltown over the past five years.

Although many religions are practiced in Myanmar, Christians and Muslims face religious persecution. The United Nations has helped resettle many religious refugees. Mason estimates there are as many as 20,000 Chin refuges in the United States who have established about 90 churches.

Rep. Dean Fisher, R-Garwin, and Mason met with the Toledo City Council recently to discuss plans for a Bible college on the 27-acre campus. The state closed the home in January and moved youthful offenders who lived and went to school there to other facilities.

“It’s not a done deal by any stretch,” Fisher said Wednesday.

The first obstacle is a lawsuit filed by Democratic legislators challenging Gov. Terry Branstad’s authority to close the facility. Until that has been resolved, Fisher doubts the state can dispose of the property.

He has discussed the possibility with fellow lawmakers and Chuck Palmer, director of the Department of Human Services, which operated the school.

The vision of the Chin Baptist Churches of America, headquartered in Indianapolis, is a Bible college and seminary with at least 100 students. Fisher is pursuing a collaboration with Iowa Valley Community College, which offers English language and GED courses in the Tama-Toledo area. Ideally, he said, local residents could enroll in general education courses, which would benefit both the community college and the Bible college.

“It would be great to create some synergy for growth,” he said.

Representatives of the Chin Baptist Churches could green light the college plans at their national meeting in Marshalltown this winter, Mason said. If approved, Liberty Baptist and the Chin Baptist community will look at opening the college in Toledo in August.

“It’s such a wonderful campus with a history in the Tama-Toledo community,” Mason said, “but it’s a long shot.”

He called the campus a “dinosaur that I’m not sure anyone wants.”

Fisher, who has been working on finding new uses or tenants, is encouraged by the interest.

“If we can make this happen, it will be very positive,” he said.

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Statehouse reporter for The Courier

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