As Jews around the world celebrate Hanukkah this week, menorahs are burning in a surprising corner of the world: Iran.Apparently, Roger Cohen couldn't find a single "Rachel" when he visited Iran.
Home to Jews – including the biblical Esther – for 3,000 years, the land today is sprinkled with synagogues that serve the Middle East’s largest community of Jews after Israel.
At recent services in the Joybar synagogue in Tehran, one of 20 in the capital city, Iranian Jews streamed in until the hall, decorated with gold, wooden, and velvet relics. More than 200 attendees read from prayer books printed in both Hebrew and Farsi.
Inside, the men wear the kippa, a Jewish religious head covering. The women cover their hair with their hijab, adhering to the Orthodox Jewish custom of covering their hair while also abiding by the laws of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
“It is safe for us in Iran, for Jews. But we always have to be careful. We know that we should stay with our community. We should not become close to Muslims. If we do, it will only be trouble,” says Rachel, a young woman who attended services recently with her toddler son.
...Early in the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini declared that Jews would be distinguished from Zionists. But in 1979, the head of Tehran’s Jewish community, millionaire businessman Habibollah Elghanian, was executed after being convicted by a revolutionary court for spying for Israel – a sign to many that Jews could be targeted no matter how wealthy or prominent they might be.
In a closed trial in 2000, an appeals court upheld the imprisonment of 10 of 13 Iranian Jews, including a minor, arrested the year before on charges of spying for Israel and the US. They were released before finishing their prison terms, due to international pressure.
...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.”
...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.”
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