How minority religions fare in the Islamic Republic of Iran

Yazd , Iran — The legend describes one cloud of dust chasing another across the epic desert landscape. Arab horsemen were gaining on the Iranian princess, it is said, when she reached the looming cliffs, slipped into a seam in the rock and disappeared forever.

As told by followers of the Zoroastrian faith that was on the run along with the princess, the tale nurtures not so much hope for the return of royalty as the survival of minority religions. In a country whose government is based on the Islamic faith that Arabs carried to the Persian plateau, that survival is enshrined in law. The same constitution that created the Islamic Republic of Iran explicitly protects three other faiths: Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Judaism.

But how their followers, especially Jews, fare provides both a barometer of actual religious tolerance in Iran and a window into a national culture with shadings far more subtle than the extremist caricature its leaders both decry and occasionally encourage.

Iran’s Muslim theocracy reserves one parliamentary seat each for Jews, Zoroastrians and Assyrian Christians, and two for members of the Armenian Orthodox community. The slots reflect both respect for Zoroastrian’s deep roots in Persia, and for the faiths that, like Islam, trace their origins to Abraham.

“They are the roots; we are the branches,” said Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

That protection does not appear to extend to the Bahai, who practice a faith the government regards as heretical. Human rights groups have documented scores of cases of persecution, including executions. Last month, 54 Bahai youths were arrested in the southern city of Shiraz, where the faith originated in the 19th century.

In addition, some Iranian Jews complain of occasional harassment since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad focused new wrath on Israel.

When Ahmadinejad expressed doubts in December that the Holocaust occurred, Moris Motamed called a news conference in his role as the member of parliament representing Iranian Jews. “I said this kind of comment is a way of insulting the Jewish community as a whole, not only inside Iran,” Motamed recalled in an interview.

Iranian officials emphasize that Iran objects not to Judaism but to Zionism, the effort to establish a Jewish state in Palestine. Yet in Tehran, Jews say Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric has prompted threats not heard in more than 15 years.

“No, not ordinary people, but mostly the Basij,” said a Jewish shopkeeper, saying the harassment came from the paramilitary from which Ahmadinejad emerged. “The thing they usually say is ‘dirty Jew.’ But I believe these people are insane. They’re not real people.”

The businessman, who asked not to be identified for his own security, said he expected no physical attack unless Israel launched a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

“Nothing can be compared to the first years of the revolution,” the businessman said, when religious minorities were jailed and executed along with communists, royalists and others deemed threats to the nascent government.

Motamed said he had received few complaints and was working with Ahmadinejad’s government to follow through with a deal negotiated under his predecessor, former President Mohammad Khatami, to permit Iranian Jews to travel to Israel for Jewish holidays. He said police responded “right away” a week earlier when a Tehran Jew reported being threatened. “And I say this with confidence: If the same thing happened with Muslims, the police would not have been as quick to act.”

The situation of Christians appears more elusive.

“Excellent!” said a middle-aged woman waiting outside St. Sarkis Church, the Armenian Orthodox headquarters where officials twice declined requests for an interview.

“We have many problems,” said the man next to her, who gave only a first name, Patrick. “Everyone has problems, but for Christians it’s harder than others.” Like other Christians who spoke privately, he complained that government jobs are off-limits.

“Thank you,” said the woman, growing agitated. “We go.”

Numbers tell at least part of the story. Since the 1979 revolution, Iran’s Jewish population has dropped from more than 100,000 to perhaps 25,000, Christians from 300,000 to around 100,000.

But some say the exodus reflects less specific persecution than the opportunity to escape a country where almost everyone was being made miserable. The religious minorities, with concerned sponsors offering relocation funds, had a way out.

“Whatever the government does, they do it to all of us,” said Ardeshir Bahrami, 64, a Zoroastrian in Yazd.

Zoroastrians appear to enjoy the most respect inside Iran, for reasons extending into the country’s 2,500-year history. The faith claims to be the first to recognize a single, omniscient god. Until its founder, Zoroaster, emerged as early as the 14th century B.C. — the date is disputed — people were paying tributes to pagan gods and grappling fearfully with questions of cause and effect.

Zoroaster made it simple. There was good, he said, and there was bad. Darkness and light. Zoroastrianism urges following the light, symbolized in the open flame nursed for 1,536 years on the andirons in the house of worship, called a “fire temple,” on Yazd’s main street.

A plaque lists the creed:

Good thoughts.

Good words.

Good deeds.

“It’s a simple religion,” Bahrami said. “It’s really not very hard to observe.”

In Yazd, a pleasant, desert city in the dead center of Iran, Zoroastrians enjoy a vivid reputation for honesty. Prices in a shop owned by a Zoroastrian are regarded as the benchmark that competing shops are compared against. Children are told that when arriving in a strange town near dark, seek out a Zoroastrian home to spend the night in.

“I’m sorry to say it and it might sound offensive, but these Zoroastrians are better Muslims than we are,” said Mohammad Pardehbaff, a Yazd driver.

Iranians also respect Zoroastrianism as the faith of Iran’s heroic age. It was the state religion under such storied emperors as Cyrus, Xerxes and Darius, whose tombs are adorned with the Zoroastrians’ distinctive symbol of a bearded man in profile between outstretched wings. The symbol is also atop a towering monument that Iran’s clerical leaders erected in Yazd’s Zoroastrian cemetery to honor a hero of the eight-year war with Iraq. Like others in the cemetery, the stone lists not date of death but date of “second birth.”

Zoroastrians celebrate funerals as birthday parties.

“There is no mourning. If someone dies, we celebrate it, because we know what’s going to happen after death,” said Payman Bastani, 27. “There’s nothing to worry about.”

The faith was not always so simple. As the state religion, Zoroastrianism spawned a priestly class that grew less popular as it grew more corrupt. By the time the Arabs arrived with Islam, they easily swept across the country. Most Persians became Muslims — specifically Shiites, a choice that served to differentiate Persians from the overwhelmingly Sunni Arabs.

But Zoroastrianism survived, especially in the deserts of central Iran, where the royal family was said to disappear. And as it returned to its essence, it also emerged as an example to faiths supposedly fueling a clash of civilizations. “This is exactly what we believe,” Bastani said. “Religion is not here to complicate your life. It’s all about simplicity. God created it to give comfort to human beings, not to frustrate everyone.”

Yet Zoroastrians are leaving Iran as well; perhaps 10,000 remain. In Taft, 10 miles south of Yazd, only the elderly linger in the mud-walled warren of houses identifiable as Zoroastrian by the tiny oil lamps burning in glass cases fitted into walls. “It’s like we have leprosy, the way they’ve evacuated!” said Ardeshir Rostami, 83.

“I believe all religions — Islam, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Judaism — are saying the same thing,” Rostami said. “It’s the deeds of the people that make them seem evil.”

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