Iran Jews celebrate Persian roots, seek to maintain shrinking community
Members of Iran's tiny Jewish minority gathered at the holy shrine of the Prophet Daniel in the southwest of the country Thursday to celebrate their Persian roots and keep alive a dwindling community.
More than 200 Iranian Jews embarked on the long journey to Susa from cities across Iran to celebrate their Jewishness in an event organized by a local Jewish youth group to support the community.
"This gathering helps promote unity, affection and friendship among Iranian Jews. We are determined to pay homage to Daniel once a year," said Bahador Michael, 26, of the Yaran organization that began organizing the trips five years ago. "It has been a great success and local authorities have been very cooperative."
Iran's 25,000 Jews, the largest community in the Middle East outside Israel, face no restriction on their religious practice, though they must follow Islamic dress codes such as head scarves for women.
Jewish population in Iran, however, has been shrinking from emigration to Israel, the United States and elsewhere. Before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, nearly 100,000 Jews lived in Iran.
Just in December, some 40 Jews secretly immigrated to Israel in a trip sponsored by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, a charity receiving millions of dollars from evangelical donors each year. Jewish leaders in Iran denied that it was an organized immigration.
"Prophet Daniel is the symbol of our proud Persian roots. The gathering in Susa is to highlight our presence in Iran since ancient times," said Farhad Aframian, the editor of the monthly Jewish magazine, who described the gathering as an opportunity for Jews from all over the country to socialize and keep in touch.
Inside the shrine, Jewish women sat reciting verses from the Torah, while nearby men in skull cups prayed loudly in Hebrew.
"I feel and peace when I pray here," said Parviz Minaei, a 50-year-old retiree.
In addition to the tomb of the Prophet Daniel, Iran is also home to another of Judaism's important sites, the shrine of Mordechai an Esther, who became a Persian queen and persuaded King Xerxes not to slaughter the Jews in an event subsequently celebrated by the festival of Purim.