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Prayers for Jewish Iranians

Chicago Tribune
June 26, 1999

Just when Iran seemed to be building new bridges to the West and slowly emerging from behind its radical Islamic veil, the country's conservative clerics have shown their intolerant, unforgiving faces again.

This time Iran has arrested at least 13 Iranian Jews--Hebrew teachers, religious activists, a rabbi, a kosher butcher, a shoe store owner--and accused them of spying for Israel and the United States. They face trial soon; the penalty could be death.

Israel and the U.S. have denied the espionage charges and justifiably condemned the arrests, as have members of Congress, the American Jewish community, the Vatican and leaders of the European Union. It appears that Iran's hardliners are using the arrests to intimidate religious minorities, antagonize the West and try to block better relations between Iran and the U.S. A Tehran-Washington rapprochement is the hallmark of reforms set in motion by President Mohammad Khatami, a relative moderate, but his enemies among the leading mullahs want no part of normalizing relations with the "Great Satan."

For example, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, who heads Iran's judiciary, has demanded that the "Jewish spies for Israel" be tried for treason. If convicted according to Islamic law, he declared, "they may be sentenced to death--not once, but several times."

Such behavior by the head of the judicial system underscores the medieval mindset that Khatami, himself a cleric, must contend with. Khatami, who has stated his support for human rights and the rule of law, responded to the international outrage over the arrests of Iranian Jews by insisting he would defend the freedom of all religious minorities in Iran.

But Khatami knows well that recognized religious minorities--Sunni Muslims, Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians--have long endured persecution in Iran. Unrecognized minorities like Bahais fare even worse. He must do everything in his power to see that no harm comes to the 13 detainees, or to a rumored nine others who also may have been jailed.

President Clinton ought to make no more concessions to Tehran, such as softening language about Iran in the annual State Department report on terrorism, until this case is resolved. The World Bank already has, quite correctly, shelved a plan to revive social development loans to Tehran.

Protestors rallied Thursday in Los Angeles, New York, London and Jerusalem to pray for those in need of deliverance. If Khatami means to keep alive his promise of reform, he'd best heed those prayers.


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