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Thursday, 13 April, 2000, 21:55 GMT 22:55 UK
Trial puts spotlight on Iran's Jews
By Jim Muir in Shiraz
In the southern Iranian city of Shiraz, the case of the 13 Iranian Jews and eight Muslims accused of spying for Israel has aroused widespread concern among western governments and human rights groups.
It has also focused attention on the Jewish community in Iran, the oldest and biggest in the Middle East outside Israel.
In the heart of the Islamic Republic, Jews gather in a synagogue to recite their evening prayers, as they have done for centuries.
The Jews have a history in Iran which goes back more than 2,500 years.
Despite the Islamic Republic's bitter hostility to Israel, the Jewish community has clung on and survived.
Since the Islamic Revolution, it has dwindled from an estimated 80,000 souls, to perhaps only around 30,000.
Miss Hassidim is a 25-year-old worshipper and is one of the few young people not trying to emigrate.
"A lot of my friends and family left this country during these
years," she says.
"Every year, the number of people coming to this synagogue is less and less."
In the early years of the Islamic Republic, many Jews may have left out of fear.
Now those who do want to leave do so for mainly economic reasons.
Jobs are few and far between, and candidates from the Muslim majority usually get preference.
However, the Jews are a tolerated minority who are respected, like Christians, as People of the Book.
At a Jewish library in Tehran, the librarian proudly shows off a new monthly magazine now being published for the community.
The librarian says that many of the books in the library are in Hebrew - though they steer clear of politics.
"These are printed in Israel," she says, pointing to some books.
"But about religion - our religion. This is printed in Israel too. It's not a problem with the authorities."
Farangis Hassidim is director of the only Jewish hospital in Iran.
It is Jewish-run, financed by the Jewish community, but nowadays only a handful of the actual patients are Jewish.
Not so long ago, it was one of the focal points of a vibrant local Jewish community in south Tehran.
"Maybe 90% of the people living round here, even 30 years ago, they were mostly Jewish," says Farangis Hassidim.
"And now, Jewish people, they have left south of city, and some they left the country. And they don't come back to us."
The depletion of the community is sadly evident at the nearby Jewish public baths.
It was once ornate and magnificent. Now almost derelict, it serves just a handful of elderly customers.
The bath attendant says that there used to be about 7,000-8,000 Jews living in the area.
"We did a survey recently and there are only 70 left now, including adults and children," says the bath attendant.
"This place has been kept going for just seven or eight old people who come here for a bath. There is no money coming in."
Most of those who have left the area have gone abroad, many to the US, others to Israel and elsewhere.
'What is a spy?'
Some officials say the emigration rate has increased since the arrest of the 13 Jews in Shiraz and Isfahan.
As Haroun Yashaya'i, head of the Jewish Society says, the whole community has felt it as a heavy blow.
"This has been one of the worst things that's happened to the Jewish community here since the Islamic Revolution," he says.
"The accusation of organised espionage has hurt us a lot, and it's caused feelings of insecurity within the community," he says.
"What does spying mean? If I write to my brother in Israel, does that make me a spy?"
"We know all these people, and nobody believes they're spies."
Anxieties have been somewhat reduced by the fact that it has been made known that only one or two of the 13 Jews will actually face spying charges.
'Iranians who happen to be Jews'
Many Iranian Jews believe they are being used as pawns in the ongoing struggle within the Islamic regime between moderates, and the hard-liners whom some Jews believe are bent on undermining and embarrassing President Mohammed Khatami and the reformists.
Manuchehr Eliasi is the Jewish member of the Iranian parliament.
"We appreciate the efforts of those who are genuinely trying to help these 13 people," he says.
"But unfortunately, there are some who are trying to use this case against Iran."
"We're absolutely opposed to this, because we are part of the Islamic Republic. We're Iranians who happen to be Jews and to be living in Iran."
"We condemn all those who throw in their lot with the enemies of the Iranian nation."
The United States has spelled out clearly that future relations with Iran will hinge on the outcome of the trial.
That alone greatly raises the stakes.
The Jewish community, struggling to survive in this ancient land, will be praying that justice and fair play prevail over politics.
13 Apr 00 | Middle East
Trial of Iranian Jews adjourned
28 Oct 99 | Middle East
Khatami's promise to Jewish 'spies'
14 Jun 99 | Middle East
Khatami: Jews are safe in Iran
11 Jun 99 | Middle East
Israel denies Iranian spy allegations
29 Jun 99 | Middle East
Iran rejects 'spies' outcry
24 Apr 99 | Middle East
Iran 'violates' human rights
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