A gay Iranian poet who fled his homeland after harassment and arrest has requested asylum in Israel, according to a report in the Al Bawaba news website.
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Homosexuality is illegal in the Islamic Republic of Iran, with those found guilty of the “crime” facing harsh punishment, including the death penalty.
Payam Feili arrived in Israel at the end of 2015 from Turkey, where he was living in exile. He came to see his latest novella, "I Will Grow, I Will Bear Fruit... Figs," staged as a play in Hebrew in a Tel Aviv theater.
But now, with his three-month visa running out, he has applied for Israeli asylum. Permanent residency is not normally granted to those who enter the country on a tourist visa, but Al Bawaba says that Israeli authorities are likely to grant his request, in light of the risk to his life if he has to return to Iran.
Feili has been fascinated with Israel ever since he was a youngster, when he began watching films about the Holocaust and started learning about the Torah. He has a coin-sized Star of David tattoo on his neck.
"I grew closer and closer to Israel and I fell in love with it," he said last December in an interview with The Associated Press.
Feili has written nine books, many of them openly discussing homosexuality. His novella, which is being produced in Israel by Ido Dagan, portrays the unrequited love of two Iranian soldiers fighting in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.
According to the PEN American Center, a writers' group advocating freedom of expression, Feili's email account was hacked in Iran and he was locked out of his online blog.
He was arrested three times over four years, most recently in February 2014 after he agreed to have his work published in Hebrew in Israel, according to PEN. The group said he was held blindfolded in a shipping container at an unknown location for 44 days, without being charged.
Suzanne Nossel, the executive director of PEN, called Feili a "very courageous individual being hounded by his government because of his identity." She said Iran's treatment toward the poet was "a core crime against expression."
Human rights groups estimate that over 4,000 gays have been executed since the Islamic Revolution. Famously, former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told a crowd at New York's Columbia University in 2007 that "in Iran, we don't have homosexuals like in your country."