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Iranian Religious Groups


Estimates of the size of the Iranian Jewish community varied from 25,000 to 30,000 by the mid-1980s. A substantial reduction from the estimated 75,000 to 80,000 Iranian Jews prior to the 1979 revolution. As of 2007 the estimate remained largely the same.

The Iranian Jewish community is one of the oldest in the world, being descended from Jews who remained in the region following the Babylonian captivity, when the Achaemenid rulers of the first Iranian empire permitted Jews to return to Jerusalem. Over the centuries the Jews of Iran became physically, culturally, and linguistically indistinguishable from the non-Jewish population. The overwhelming majority of Jews speak Persian (Farsi) as their mother language, and a tiny minority, Kurdish. The Jews are predominantly urban and by the 1970s were concentrated in Tehran, with smaller communities in other cities, such as Shiraz, Esfahan, Hamadan, and Kashan.

Until the twentieth century the Jews were confined to their own quarters in the towns. In general the Jews were an impoverished minority, occupationally restricted to small-scale trading, moneylending, and working with precious metals. Since the 1920s, Jews had greater opportunities for economic and social mobility. They received assistance from a number of international Jewish organizations, including the American Joint Distribution Committee, which introduced electricity, piped water, and modern sanitation into Jewish neighborhoods. The Jews had gradually gained increased importance in the bazaars of Tehran and other cities, and after World War II some educated Jews entered the professions, particularly pharmacy, medicine, and dentistry.

The Constitution of 1979 recognized Jews as an official religious minority and accorded them the right to elect a representative to the Majlis. Like the Christians, the Jews were not initially actively persecuted. Unlike the Christians, the Jews were been viewed with suspicion by the government, probably because of the government's intense hostility toward Israel. Iranian Jews generally had many relatives in Israel, some 45,000 Iranian Jews emigrated from Iran to Israel between 1948 and 1977, with whom they were in regular contact. Since 1979 the government had cited mail and telephone communications as evidence of "spying" in the arrest, detention, and even execution of a few prominent Jews. Although these individual cases had not affected the status of the community as a whole, they have contributed to a pervasive feeling of insecurity among Jews regarding their future in Iran and have helped to precipitate large-scale emigration. Most Jews who had left since the Revolution settled in the United States.

While Jews were a recognized religious minority, allegations of official discrimination were frequent. The government's anti-Israel stance, and the perception of much of the population that Jewish citizens supported Zionism and the state of Israel, often created a threatening atmosphere for the small community. Jews limited their contact with, and did not openly express support for, Israel out of fear of reprisal. During the early 2000s and more so after the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Anti-American and anti-Israeli demonstrations began to include the denunciation of Jews, as opposed to the past practice of denouncing only Israel and Zionism, adding to the threatening atmosphere for the community. Jewish leaders were reportedly reluctant to draw attention to official mistreatment of their community due to fear of government reprisal.

However, the 30,000-member Jewish community (the largest in the Middle East outside of Israel) enjoyed somewhat more freedoms than Jewish communities in several other Muslim states. The Iranian Jews were allowed to visit Israel. However, the freedom of Iranian Jews to practice their religion was limited, and Iranian Jews remained reluctant to speak out for fear of reprisals. During 1993-1998, Iran executed five Jews who were allegedly spying for Israel. In June 1999, Iran arrested 13 Jews (mostly teachers, shopkeepers, and butchers) from the Shiraz area that it said were part of an "espionage ring" for Israel. After an April-June 2000 trial, ten of the Jews and two Muslims accomplices were convicted on 1 July 2000, receiving sentences ranging from 4 to 13 years. An appeals panel reduced the sentences, and all were released by April 2003.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 02:45:49 ZULU