As Hanukkah closes, menorahs have flickered in surprising place: Iran
Iranian Jews, who have been celebrating Hanukkah this week along with Jews around the world, are eking out a tenuous existence amid escalating Iran-Israel rhetoric.
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President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his government consistently refuse to refer to Israel by name, opting instead for “Zionist entity” or Palestine. He has called the Holocaust a “myth” whose scope has been greatly exaggerated to serve as an excuse for the establishment of Israel and support of its policies.Skip to next paragraph
“The pretext for the creation of the Zionist regime is false,” said Mr. Ahmadinejad on Al Quds (Jerusalem) Day last year, an event designed to highlight Muslim solidarity with Palestinians. “It is a lie based on an unprovable and mythical claim. Confronting the Zionist regime is a national and religious duty.”
Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, often described as Ahmadinejad’s spiritual mentor, is believed to have helped inspire the president’s doubt about the scale of the Holocaust. In December 2006, Iranian authorities coordinated an international conference that featured many Holocaust deniers.
An Iranian-funded website recently published a cartoon slide show of Jews fabricating the Holocaust to justify the state of Israel, depicting Jews as worms, fat men with long noses, and butchers of Palestinians.
Pressure on converts
But Jews, whose population in Iran has dropped to 25,000 from 100,000 in the 1950s, aren’t the only struggling minority in Iran.
The US State Department estimates that 300,000 Christians live in Iran, with more than 70 registered churches and countless informal groups run from individuals’ homes. As many as 100,000 Christians in Iran are converts, according to local estimates.
“Theoretically in Islamic jurisprudence, death is the punishment for any Muslim who dares to convert,” says a Muslim journalist jailed during former President Mohammed Khatami’s 1997-2005 tenure for writing about the conversion of Muslims. “In practice in Iran, converts are arrested for a few months and then released, which helps their case in seeking asylum abroad.”
But state-run businesses refuse to hire Christian and Jewish converts, and those who practice minority religions are arrested if they proselytize, he says.
“The secret police come every week to the Jewish Association and ask if any Muslims have tried to convert to Judaism,” whispers Rachel, who asked to go by a pseudonym. “They will kill us if that happens. But more people are trying to convert to Judaism, a few come every week ... and ask. We always tell them to go away.”
'It was like this during the Revolution'
The government crackdown on dissidents in the wake of last year’s contested presidential election has extended to minorities as well, says a local Armenian in Esfahan.
“It was like this during the Revolution. So many Armenians are trying to leave, again,” says the man, who prays regularly at a 400-year-old church, Saint Joseph of Arimathea. “We know that the economy is bad and it is no longer safe for us here.”
“I want to leave. My family and friends have left. But my daughter is 17 years old and my wife and I want to see what to do after she finishes high school,” continues the father, who asked that his name not be used. “We would like to go to Cyprus but we know that 10 million toman [US$400] won’t get us far. I don’t want to leave one bad situation for another.”
But Rachel is more bold. Back in the Tehran synagogue, she leans in and whispers, “You know, I wish I could go to Israel. It is my dream to go there one day and see it.”