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Uneasy times for Iran's Jews

The impending trial of 13 Jews has spread fear in what has been a prosperous community.

Taxi drivers in Tehran and Shiraz never blink when you ask to go to the vibrant Jewish quarters in their cities. It is just one sign of how little anti-Semitism there is in the Islamic republic.

Iran, although it may be the most stridently anti-Israeli country in the Middle East, is home to the largest Jewish population by far of any other Muslim country.

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"Our position here is not as bad as people abroad may think," says Farangis Hassidim, who is in charge of the only Jewish hospital in Tehran. "We practice our religion freely; we have all our festivals; we have our own schools and kindergartens."

The late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini insisted that opposition to the Jewish state did not mean opposition to the Jewish faith and that like the country's Armenian Christians, Jews had to be tolerated as "people of the book." Soon after his return from exile in 1979, he issued a fatwa, or religious decree, that they must be protected.

Power struggle

However, the arrest earlier this year of 13 Iranian Jews accused of spying for Israel has raised fears that the community has for the first time become a pawn in the intensifying power struggle between the regime's hard-line and moderate factions. If found guilty, they face the death penalty, and their impending trial could be the most important case in Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Most Jews in Shiraz are unwilling to publicly talk about the case. "I don't follow politics," said a dapper businessman as he left one of the synagogues in the city. But he appeared keen to convey something before he disappeared down a leafy street. "It's getting bad for us here," he whispered. Were the arrests politically motivated, a reporter asked. "It's up to you to put 2 and 2 together," he said.

Few informed Iranians believe any of the 13 are guilty. It is a view shared by many Israeli commentators, who have ridiculed the possibility that Israel would imperil the lives of Iran's Jews by recruiting spies among a community that is constantly watched by the Iranian authorities.

Some supporters of the reformist president, Mohamad Khatami, suspect that his opponents in the judiciary and intelligence and security services are using the case to wreck relations with the West. If Mr. Khatami stands up for the accused, he could then be seen as defending men branded as Zionists.

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As yet he has not done so. But in June, without referring to the case, he said he was "responsible for every single member of every religious persuasion who lived in Iran."

Iranian officials, hard-liners particularly, have angrily rejected suggestions that the 13 were scapegoated because of factional politics. Some Israeli commentators agree the protracted power struggle has little to do with it but have opted for another possibility that is no less flattering to Iran.

The 13, they argue, have been taken as hostages to be used as bargaining chips to secure payment by Israel of $5 billion worth of debts from oil and arms sales that predate the 1979 Islamic revolution. A report to that effect in the respected Israeli newspaper Haaretz was ridiculed as a "bad joke" by the Iranian foreign ministry.

The timing of the trial, which will be held in Shiraz, is uncertain. Insiders strongly doubt that any of the accused will be hanged or that Iran will press charges against all of them.

"Maybe a couple of them who might have visited Israel to see relatives might get a year or two in jail," a Jewish businessman in Shiraz says, referring to the fact that Iranians are forbidden to visit Israel. The arrests have caused unease among the Jewish community but not panic, he says. "The less the West makes a fuss, in particular the Americans, the better for us," says a Jewish high school teacher in Tehran.

Until the arrests, Jews in Iran had survived the rule of the ayatollahs far better than many thought they would in 1979. Although many have left - numbers have fallen from about 100,000 to about 28,000 - they are still the largest Jewish community outside Israel in the Middle East. Only in Turkey is there a community of comparable size - about 20,000. Their resilience is in marked contrast to Jewish communities elsewhere in the region, which, before the creation of Israel in 1948, totaled a population of 1 million that has since dwindled to just 60,000.

Deep roots in Iran

But Jewish roots in Iran go deep. Jewish leaders proudly trace their history to the reign of the ancient Persian king Cyrus, who according to the Bible conquered Babylonia in 539 BC and freed Jews from captivity. As Jews returned to Jerusalem at that time, many also migrated to Persia.

Today, Jews enjoy considerable official freedom to practice their faith. They elect their own deputy to the 270-seat parliament and have certain rights of self-administration. As their community has become smaller, it has become more tightly knit, and the synagogue has become the focal point of social life, ensuring a new religious fervor.

Privately, there are grumbles about discrimination, much of it of a social or bureaucratic nature. Government jobs are hard to come by, they say, and Jews have to wait much longer for travel documents and exit visas. The most pressing complaint is that Jewish schools must open on Saturday, the Jewish sabbath.

There had been high hopes these concerns would be addressed when Khatami was elected by a landslide two years ago. "But nothing has changed," says a dealer in spare car parts. "He's a good man, but they [his hard-line opponents] won't let him do anything."

Once more Jews are leaving Iran. "Every week you hear of another family going," says the wife of a rabbi at one of Tehran's 23 synagogues. But it is the ailing economy rather than the arrests that are blamed. She says, "It's simply that people think they can have a better life for their children elsewhere."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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