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Jews in Iran Describe a Life of Freedom Despite Anti-Israel Actions by Tehran

Islam, Judaism Under One Tent

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One of the most striking of many murals in Iran's capital, Tehran, is a towering portrait of Fathi Shkaki, a leader of the militant Palestinian group, Islamic Jihad. He was assassinated by Israeli agents in 1995 after he masterminded a series of suicide bombings against Jewish civilians.

A slogan beneath his face hails him as a hero of the Islamic revolution in Palestine.

Yet, stroll a little farther along Palestine Street and you come to the Abrishami Synagogue, the biggest of 23 synagogues in Tehran. It is regularly attended by some 1,000 worshippers.

It comes as a surprise to many visitors to discover that Iran, a country so hostile to Israel and with a reputation for intolerance, is home to a small but vibrant Jewish community that is an officially recognized religious minority under Iran's 1979 Islamic Constitution.

"[Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini didn't mix up our community with Israel and Zionism - he saw us as Iranians," says Haroun Yashyaei, a film producer and chairman of the Central Jewish Community in Iran. Like Iran's Armenian Christians, Jews are tolerated as "people of the book" and allowed to practice their religion freely, provided they do not proselytize.

They elect their own deputy to the 270-seat Parliament and enjoy certain rights of self-administration. Jewish burial and divorce laws are accepted by Islamic courts. Jews are conscripted into the Army.

"We are one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world," Mr. Yashyaei says. "When Muslims came to Iran, we had already been here for centuries."

"Take it from me, the Jewish community here faces no difficulties. If some people left after the revolution, maybe it's because they were scared," says Farangis Hassidim, a forceful but good-humored woman who is charge of the only Jewish hospital in Iran. She adds: "Our position here is not as bad as people abroad may think. We practice our religion freely, we have all our festivals, we have our own schools and kindergartens."

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