Extremist Image Masks Iranians' Many Faiths

Zoroastrian priest holds a cup with fire to celebrate the ancient Iranian ceremony of Jashn-eh-Sadeh in Tehran in January. Zoroastrians have a 2,500-year history in the country.
Zoroastrian priest holds a cup with fire to celebrate the ancient Iranian ceremony of Jashn-eh-Sadeh in Tehran in January. Zoroastrians have a 2,500-year history in the country. (Photos By Hasan Sarbakhshian -- Associated Press)
By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 18, 2006

YAZD, Iran -- The legend describes one cloud of dust chasing another across the epic desert landscape. Arab horsemen were gaining on the Iranian princess, it is said, when she reached the looming cliffs, slipped into a seam in the rock and disappeared forever.

As told by followers of the Zoroastrian faith that was on the run along with the princess, the tale nurtures not so much hope for the return of royalty as the survival of minority religions. In a country whose government is based on the Islamic faith that Arabs carried to the Persian plateau, that survival is enshrined in law. The same constitution that created the Islamic Republic of Iran explicitly protects three other faiths: Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Judaism.

But how their followers, especially Jews, fare provides both a barometer of actual religious tolerance in Iran and a window into a national culture with shadings far more subtle than the extremist caricature its leaders both decry and occasionally encourage.

Iran's Muslim theocracy reserves one parliamentary seat each for Jews, Zoroastrians and Assyrian Christians, and two for members of the Armenian Orthodox community. The slots reflect both respect for Zoroastrian's deep roots in Persia, and for the faiths that, like Islam, trace their origins to Abraham.

"They are the roots; we are the branches," said Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

That protection does not appear to extend to the Bahai, who practice a faith the government regards as heretical. Human rights groups have documented scores of cases of persecution, including executions. Last month, 54 Bahai youths were arrested in the southern city of Shiraz, where the faith originated in the 19th century.

In addition, some Iranian Jews complain of occasional harassment since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad focused new wrath on Israel.

When Ahmadinejad expressed doubts in December that the Holocaust occurred, Moris Motamed called a news conference in his role as the member of parliament representing Iranian Jews. "I said this kind of comment is a way of insulting the Jewish community as a whole, not only inside Iran," Motamed recalled in an interview.

Iranian officials emphasize that Iran objects not to Judaism but to Zionism, the effort to establish a Jewish state in Palestine. Yet in Tehran, Jews say Ahmadinejad's rhetoric has prompted threats not heard in more than 15 years.

"No, not ordinary people, but mostly the Basij," said a Jewish shopkeeper, saying the harassment came from the paramilitary from which Ahmadinejad emerged. "The thing they usually say is 'dirty Jew.' But I believe these people are insane. They're not real people."

The businessman, who asked not to be identified for his own security, said he expected no physical attack unless Israel launched a military attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.

"Nothing can be compared to the first years of the revolution," the businessman said, when religious minorities were jailed and executed along with communists, royalists and others deemed threats to the nascent government.

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