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9 Tammuz 5759 - June 23, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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New Arrests in Iran Rumored

by Yated Ne'eman Staff and Mordecai Plaut

Members of the Federation of Former Iranians in Israel said that it is rumored that an additional wave of arrests of Jews in Iran has occurred. This statement was made at a meeting between the organization's head and Chief Rabbi of Israel Yisroel Meir Lau. Family members of the arrested Jews were also invited to attend that meeting, but they did not come.

One of the activists, Yossi Siwan, said that he had spoken with an immigrant who recently arrived form Shiraz, who knows the arrested Jews. Siwan said, "There is no doubt that this is a blood libel, whose apparent purpose is to annihilate the Jewish community of Iran."

All five United Torah Judaism (UTJ) MKs met last week with the U.S. and French ambassadors to Israel, urging them to take action to secure the immediate release of the arrested Jews. The UTJ representatives also met with the German and British ambassadors. The U.S. ambassador said that he would convey the request to President Clinton and to Secretary of State Allbright.

U.S. President Bill Clinton said he will seek international assistance in gaining the release of the 13 Jews imprisoned in Iran on trumped up charges of espionage. Both the U.S. and Israel have categorically denied that the Iranian Jews were spying on their behalf.

In 1998 Iran executed a 60-year-old Iranian businessman for allegedly spying for Israel, according to Human Rights Watch. In 1997 two people were hanged after they were convicted of espionage charges, according to the human rights organization Amnesty International.

In 1996, an anonymous Iranian Jew testified in the U.S. before the House of Representatives Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights that he was imprisoned for more than two years because he was suspected of spying for Israel.

Seventeen Jews are said to have been executed in Iran since the revolution in 1979.

Iran's 2,500-year-old Jewish population is the largest Diaspora community left in the Middle East, with an estimated 25,000 to 35,000 Jews.

Iran's pre-Revolution Jewish population is estimated to have been 100,000, but most left for the United States and Israel as anti-Zionism and anti-capitalism heated up under the Islamic regime. Jews are today considered a "tolerated minority" in Iran, a state that is ruled by Islamic law, or Shariah. This protection came in the form of a fatwa, or religious decree, issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini when he returned from exile in Paris in 1979 to announce the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

As do the other recognized religious minorities living in Iran -- Christians and Zoroastrians -- the Jewish community has its own representative in the Iranian Parliament.

In 1997, according to one news report, there were 11 functioning synagogues, two kosher restaurants, a Jewish hospital, an old age home and a cemetery in Teheran alone. Jews are allowed to congregate and pray in synagogues, which have become for many Jews since the Revolution a social center as well.

Jews are permitted to drink alcohol in private -- unlike Muslims, for whom liquor is prohibited -- but Jewish women must cover their heads in accordance with the Islamic dress code.

Jewish merchants are permitted to close their businesses on Shabbos, but one of the explanations for the recent arrests is that some of the religious Jews refused to open their stores on Shabbos.

Jewish religious education is encouraged and taught by Jewish teachers, although the schools are run by the Muslim state. However, learning Hebrew is more suspect and is taught only in private. It is popularly associated with Israel, and thus Zionism.

Nasrin Jahaverian, whose brother, Nasser Levihaim, is one of the men in custody, said that Iranian authorities might have targeted him because he frequently volunteered as a Hebrew teacher.

Most Iranian Jews live in the capital, Teheran; only a few thousand live in the regional centers of and Isfahan and Shiraz, where the Jews in custody were arrested. Shiraz is known as a more traditional city than Teheran, and Jewish and Muslim residents tend toward religious conservatism.

Meanwhile, a senior Iranian cleric has rebuffed protests from world Jewry and insisted that 13 Iranian Jews should hang if they are convicted of espionage, Iranian newspapers reported.

"No country can be lenient with spies," several newspapers quoted Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati as saying in a Friday prayer sermon at Teheran University.

Jannati alleged that those arrested had been "engaged in collecting intelligence data and sending them to Israel via Turkey or other places."

Hard-liners in Iran were rebuffed, however, by more moderate President Mohammed Khatami, who has gone out of his way to issue statements "defending the rights" of religious minorities. In recent months, Khatami has been trying to create better ties with the West.

An official with a Jewish organization took up the issue on June 17 with six Iranian journalists visiting the United States at a closed-door meeting. The Jewish group sought to convey the seriousness with which officials in the United States take the fate of the 13 Jews.

The journalists, all loyal to Iranian President Mohammed Khatami, said they believe the arrests are an effort to thwart the president's policies. However, no world pressure will lead to their release, the reporters said.

"Once they've been charged, they have to be tried," the journalists told a source at the Jewish organization. "Their only hope is to have an open trial, open to public scrutiny."

Efforts to enlist Jordan's assistance in the matter, however, have been ignored. Quoting official Jordanian sources, the London-based Arabic newspaper Al Hayat reported that Jordan fears raising the issue will cast a shadow on Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Harazi's visit to Jordan, the first of its kind since the Iranian 1979 revolution.

Jewish organizations in France are trying to coordinate a large demonstration this week in front of the Iranian embassy in Paris.

A special prayer for the safety of those arrested was recited in all Orthodox synagogues throughout Britain and the Commonwealth on Shabbos.

The U.S. State Department, key European nations and the Vatican have tried to intercede on behalf of the prisoners. Israeli Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon said that Israel is acting in "full swing" to secure the prisoners' release.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, the U.S. civil rights leader, failed in a bid to meet with Iran's UN representative to appeal for the suspects' release, but vowed to press ahead for their freedom. Jackson, who is currently in Paris, discussed the affair with France's Jewish community leaders. He reiterated his offer to fly to Iran in order to bring about the release of the arrested Jews. Jackson was quoted as saying that the execution of the arrested Jews would be a very negative measure, which would harm Iran's efforts to once more integrate with the international community.

Chief Rabbi Yisroel Lau made an appeal to many diplomatic and political leaders to save the threatened Jews. He wrote or spoke to King Abdullah of Jordan, as well as the former president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela. This past Monday Chief Rabbi Lau wrote to the President of Kazkhastan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, saying: "We know that you have influence on the leaders of Iran, and we are aware of your personal friendship with President Khatami and with the heads of the Iranian religious establishment. Therefore please help us in our important endeavor to save the imprisoned Jews from the death sentence, and to return them to their families as soon as possible." Chief Rabbi Lau also asked the Dalai Lama, who was visiting Israel, to use his influence to secure the release of the 13 Jews held in Iran.

Canadian diplomats in Teheran asked the Iranian Foreign Ministry for clarification of the charges.

Iran has given assurances to the Canadian Embassy that the 13 Jews would "receive fair treatment and due process in accordance with Iranian law."

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and the International Committee of the Red Cross have also been asked to make personal pleas to Iran for the release of 13 Jews accused of espionage.

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