Iran's religious minorities waning despite own MPs WIRE:02/16/2000 11:07:00 ET

Iran's religious minorities waning despite own MPs

TEHRAN, Feb 16 (Reuters) - Iran's officially recognised religious minorities -- Armenian and Assyrian Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians -- will each choose their own deputies in nationwide parliamentary elections on Friday.

But despite the constitutional protection and political representation they enjoy in the Islamic republic, all three communities are dwindling because of emigration, low birth rates and economic hardship.

A total of 35 candidates are vying for the five seats set aside for recognised minorities, the Interior Ministry said.

The Armenians, brought to Persia en masse as merchants and partisans by Shah Abbas in the early 17th century, are the largest official minority. They have two seats in the Islamic Consultative Assembly, one for Tehran and northern Iran, the other for Isfahan and the south.

The Assyrian Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians have one each.

ARMENIAN BIRTH-RATE DOWN

"Before the (1979 Islamic) revolution there were 300,000 Armenians in Iran. Very frankly, today there are no more than 150,000," said Archbishop Goriun Babian, prelate of the Armenians in Iran and India.

Many have moved to join relatives in the United States or Western Europe. But the Beirut-born Babian, whose cathedral in the Isfahan suburb of Jolfa is one of the city's artistic masterpieces, said the slump in the birth-rate is the biggest threat to his community.

The Oxford-educated cleric said Armenians had proved their loyalty to Iran at the beginning of the revolution and during the 1980-88 war with Iraq, when hundreds were "martyred" fighting for the country.

The Armenians have the right to make their own alcohol for domestic consumption in this dry Islamic republic.

Despite the archbishop's confidence in his flock's integration into Iranian society, many young Armenians say they yearn to emigrate.

"There's nothing for us here. What place do I have in an Islamic republic where mullahs preach and four-year-old kids read the Koran on television all day. I want to go to America, but it's hard for us to get visas," said Rafi, a science graduate.

Since Armenian Christians do not proselytize, they are not regarded as a threat to Iran's Islamic faith, unlike Protestant churches such as the Anglicans, who have come under pressure since the revolution.

Members of the Baha'i faith, a breakaway sect from Islam, is are seen as heretics and were subjected to severe harassment after the revolution.

JEWS RATTLED BY "SPY" CASE

Present in Iran since biblical times, the Jewish community has been shaken in the last year by the arrest of 13 of its members on allegations of spying for Israel.

Three were freed on bail two weeks before the election in an apparent gesture to Jewish MP Manuchehr Eliasi, who faces the delicate task of pleading for their freedom while voicing public confidence in the Islamic justice system.

Eliasi, who faces three challengers in the ballot, told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday he had been promised by the authorities the case would be resolved in the next few weeks and hoped all 13 would be released. He declined to elaborate.

A handful of prominent Jews were executed after the revolution for their close ties with the deposed Shah or on charges of espionage for Israel, which had close ties with pre-revolution Iran.

But Eliasi says the authorities have left his community in peace to run its synagogues, schools, community centres, kosher shops and hospital, despite a daily torrent of anti-Israel rhetoric from pulpits and the state media.

Many Iranian Jews migrated to Israel after its creation in 1948. There were still 80,000 Jews in Iran in 1979 but most have since left. Eliasi said there were still 30-35,000 Jews in Iran, but other sources put the figure as low as 20-25,000.

The pull of relatives abroad, particularly in the United States, is strong.

OLDEST FAITH IS SMALLEST

The Zoroastrians, believed to number barely 10,000 in Iran and about 300,000 worldwide, are the most ancient religious group in Iran and the smallest official minority. They live mainly around the central city of Yazd, President Mohammad Khatami's home area, and in Tehran.

Zoroastrianism, one of the earliest monotheistic religions along with Judaism, became the state religion of the pre-Islamic ancient Persian empire.

But today, there are many more Zoroastrians in Los Angeles, home of a 600,000-strong Iranian exile community, than in Iran.

Outgoing Zoroastrian MP Parviz Rezvani was quoted recently as complaining that some laws discriminated against minorities by encouraging conversion to Islam. If a minority child becomes a Moslem, all the parents' property goes to that child at their death and none to the other children, he said.

The minority seats existed under the Shah and were maintained after the revolution. Minority MPs usually address only their own community's affairs in the assembly and steer clear of wider Iranian politics.


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