Iran making room for its spiritual minorities

But one religion still faces unapologetic persecution

Yazd, Iran — Shahram Goharian could be called a typical Iranian, except for the poster of the Hebrew prophet Moses that he hangs above his shop counter.

He owns a small clothing store in the city of Yazd, a historic caravan stop amid the vast emptiness of the country’s central desert. On a recent day, his store was filled with neighboring shopkeepers whiling away a slow afternoon in front of a soccer match on his television.

Hands waved, and shouts erupted. No one paid any notice to the Moses poster.

Goharian is Jewish, one of a tiny, sometimes persecuted minority in Iran that is tenaciously holding on to its way of life under Iran’s Shiite Muslim theocracy.

When asked how it is to be a Jew in Iran, he smiled. “It’s not anything important. All my neighbors know. I’m open Fridays (the Muslim holy day) but closed Saturdays (the Jewish Sabbath). They collect my packages on Saturdays,” he said.

A murmur of assent came from his friends in the shop — all of them Muslim — before they swung their attention back to the soccer game.

Among its population of 70 million, Iran has about 25,000 Jews, 100,000 Christians and 60,000 adherents of Zoroastrianism, which was the religion of the Persian Empire before the Muslim conquest in the seventh century.

While they have been through troubling times since the 1979 Islamic revolution — the government has acknowledged executing 17 Jews, often on charges of spying for Israel, and the number of Jews in the country has shrunk by one half — the three groups today appear to be making slow, discreet progress, a sign that the government itself is slowly becoming more open.

Last year, Jewish leaders in Iran successfully petitioned the nation’s top cleric, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to halt a campaign of anti- Semitic slander in the conservative media under his control. Also, 10 Iranian Jews sentenced to prison in 2000 on charges of spying for Israel were released.

Despite their small numbers, the three groups — “recognized minority religions” under the 1979 constitution — are guaranteed five seats in the 290-member parliament. Jews and Zoroastrians get one seat each, Armenian Christians two, and Chaldean and Assyrian Catholics share one seat. They have their own schools, as well as churches, synagogues and temples. Unlike Iran’s Muslims, men and women of these minority faiths are permitted to dance together in their clubs and to serve liquor — as long as no Muslims are admitted to the premises.

Another major step forward may come with the ending of one of Iran’s most egregious forms of discrimination — unequal status for minorities in the payment of “blood money” as compensation for victims of violent crime.

Under the system, the amount legally owed by a perpetrator to the victim’s family is just 1/13 of the amount due to Muslims.

Iranian law retains an old Islamic definition of blood money as one of the following: 100 camels, 200 cows, 1,000 sheep, 200 silk dresses, 1,000 gold coins or 10,000 silver coins.

To simplify things, religious authorities have set an inflation-adjusted cash equivalent, which this year is 150 million rials, or $18,750. Because auto and life insurance coverage is rare in Iran, the ability to collect blood money can be vital for citizens who lose a family member.

A bill to eliminate the discrepancy between Muslims and non-Muslims is winding its way tortuously through the legislative system — after being vetoed twice by the powerful 12-member Guardian Council as un-Islamic — and may become law by the end of this month.

Western governments and human rights groups have pressed Iran to approve the bill, and the equally powerful Expediency Council, which consists of senior clerics and former top politicians and has final say over disputes between government bodies, is expected to approve a compromise under which Khamenei will decide on a revised payment formula.

“For sure, this bill will not be rejected in the Expediency Council,” said Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi, a cleric in the city of Qom who is close to Khamenei. “The supreme leader has expressed his support for it. There is a fatwa determining that blood money should be equal.”

Said Leon Davidian, an Armenian Christian member of parliament, “We have received assurances from the supreme leader’s office that the bill will be approved, and if that occurs, it would be a big step for making minorities feel more comfortable here in Iran.”

Except for one. The Baha’is, Iran’s largest religious minority, continue to face unapologetic persecution. A 19th century offshoot of Shiite Islam, the Baha’i faith is viewed as apostasy by the Shiite establishment.

The estimated 300,000 Baha’is in Iran are denied permission to worship, hold office or carry out other communal affairs publicly or privately. They are banned from university education, they are denied most business and professional licenses, and their property is often confiscated.

Jewish legislator Moris Motamed said that the ayatollahs’ antipathy for Baha’is makes the issue too hot to handle. “Their situation is beyond our grasp,” he said.

Iranian women also will not benefit from the blood money reform. They receive only half the payment due Muslim men (or 1/26 if they are female members of the three minority religions).

A group of female legislators is campaigning to equalize the amounts. They say that while the system may have made sense centuries ago in a nonindustrial society, in which the death of a man spelled the loss of a family’s entire income, it is unjust for women in contemporary Iran.

“The issue of minorities and blood money is very closely linked to the issue of women,” said Mohsen Esmaeli, one of 12 members of the Guardian Council who voted to veto the bill. “There are important precedents that we must be very careful about because this could have many bad effects.”

After the soccer game ended on Goharian’s television, the merchant guided a visiting reporter down his city’s crooked alleyways, lined with ancient mud walls, to his synagogue.

Early in the 20th century, it was one of 13 in Yazd. But now, as most Jews have moved away to Tehran, the United States or Israel, it is the only one remaining, and there are barely enough worshipers to fill the Friday night service.

It is a simple, adobelike structure — the ceiling a single whitewashed dome, the floor covered with Persian carpets with Hebrew lettering. An ancient teiva (ark) stands in the middle. But in a sign of Islam’s ultimate power, a small portrait of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of Iran’s Islamic revolution, hangs on the wall.

“It’s a sign of respect, nothing more,” said Goharian, shrugging. “This is an Islamic country. What can we do?”

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog)
San Francisco Chronicle, USA
Dec. 4, 2004
Robert Collier, Chronicle Staff Writer

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This post was last updated: Monday, November 30, -0001 at 12:00 AM, Central European Time (CET)