Hundreds of members of the Jewish ultra-orthodox Lev Tahor sect are trying to reach Iran, where they requested political asylum in 2019, but their relatives are afraid that Tehran may use the group, who hold Israeli and American citizenships, as bargaining chips.
Members of the cult, based in Guatemala, are attempting to fly to Iraqi Kurdistan, but the relatives of the cult members have contacted their respective governments in request to try and block the migration, according to the Ynet news site.
The families claim that “reaching the Iran-Kurdistan border could cause a mega-political and security event” which would make the 2011 prisoner deal —in which Israel exchanged over 1,000 security prisoners for captured IDF serviceman Gilad Shalit— “look like a children's game.”
A parent of a cult member who spoke to the Hebrew news site on condition of anonymity, said that he was “very concerned about the lives of my daughter and grandchildren” and described how they were being fed on a diet of bread, fruit and vitamin pills by the cult. "She is convinced that her way is right and that it will bring the Messiah,” he added, referring to his daughter.
Lev Tahor, which counts about 230 members, relocated to Guatemala from Canada in 2014 following allegations of mistreatment of its children, including abuse and child marriages.
Arranged marriages between teenagers and older cult members are reported to be common. The group shuns technology and its female members wear black robes from head to toe, leaving only their faces exposed.
Members of the anti-Zionist cult believe that the Messiah will first come to Iraq, the Ynet report stated, quoting Rabbi Zvi Gluck of Amudim —an Israeli organization that has rescued dozens of Lev Tahor members— as saying that Guatemalan authorities had detained several members of the cult who had attempted to board a flight to the Middle East last week.
- Young boy from 'Jewish Taliban' reveals physical, sexual abuse: 'Hell is real, I live there'
- U.S. charges extremist Orthodox Lev Tahor sect with exploiting, kidnapping children
- Guatemala cops raid Jewish cult Lev Tahor wanted for abusing children
Three members of the cult are already in Kurdistan, according to the ultra-Orthodox Yeshiva World news site, which published photos of cult members at the airport. It reported that they had told officials that they were fleeing persecution and seeking asylum in Iran.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry told the ultra-Orthodox Kikar Hashabbat news site that it was working on the issue “through a variety of channels” in coordination with “a number of other relevant countries.”
Earlier this year, U.S. Federal authorities filed child exploitation and child abduction charges against the sect’s leaders, who have been accused of forcing girls as young as 12 years old into marriages with much older men within the sect.
In a press release this April, the U.S. Justice Department said that young brides in the sect, often described as the “Jewish Taliban,” were expected “to have sex with their husbands, to tell people outside Lev Tahor that they were not married, to pretend to be older, and to deliver babies inside their homes instead of at a hospital, partially to conceal from the public the mothers' young ages.”
In 2019, multiple members were charged with kidnapping over what federal authorities described as a plot to abduct two New York children who recently fled the ultra-Orthodox group.
That same year, members of the group appealed to the Iranian government to grant them political asylum. In its request, the anti-Zionist cult declared their loyalty and submission to the Supreme Leader and Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran and asked for “asylum, protection and religious freedom of the families of its loyal members” as well as calling for “cooperation and help to counter Zionist dominance in order to peacefully liberate the Holy Land and the Jewish nation.”
On Thursday, the Times of Israel published a video clip of Uriel Goldman, the cult’s spokesman, referring to accusations that the IDF used excessive force during Israel's 11-day war with Gaza in May. Goldman was recorded saying “There [are] people who are always saying ‘how come you’re attacking children?’ There [are] casualt[ies] with children!’… It’s nonsense because you know how [Israel] care[s] about [these] things much more than Americans.”
According to the Times of Israel, the emergence of the clip could scuttle the efforts of the cult to obtain residency in Iran.
JTA and Associated Press contributed to this report.