Bahai News - Islamic republic's non-Muslims stand behind Khatami

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Saturday, June 2 10:40 AM SGT

Islamic republic's non-Muslims stand behind Khatami

TEHRAN, June 2 (AFP) - The 300,000 non-Muslims voting in Iran's presidential election next Friday are expected to side en masse with reformist incumbent Mohammad Khatami, although their political leaders generally refrain from taking sides in the Islamic republic's politics.

The largest non-Muslim group voting Friday, when Khatami faces nine mostly conservative rivals, is the Armenians, who has up to 250,000 members and is Iran's best organized minority.

"It's good that there are a number of candidacies; that proves the loyalty of different currents to the system. Armenians will participate en masse in the June 8 vote, as they did in 1997, with 90 percent turnout," said Georgik Abrahamiam, an Armenian MP from the central city of Isfahan.

"Armenians' rights are set by specific laws that aren't going to change with the election," said Abrahamiam, who said his concern was instead "economic and social development" to stop Armenian-Iranians' emigration to the West.

While Abrahamiam toes a carefully non-partisan line, most Armenians do not hide their enthusiasm for Khatami, swept to power with 70 percent of the vote in 1997 on a platform of reforming the conservative government and is widely expected to be elected to a second term.

"Khatami gave us hope. He recognized us on the cultural and human levels. My family and friends will all vote for him," said Azad, a young Armenian woman.

Her enthusiasm is shared by Iran's 30,000 Assyro-Chaldeans, who practise an ancient form of Christianity linked to the Roman Catholic Church.

"In 1997, we all voted for him. We will do it again. He is good for us and he wants us to stay in Iran," said Assyro-Chaldean MP Yonathen Betcolia, unnerved by the large numbers of his community leaving for the United States.

Khatami last year even visited an Assyro-Chaldean church in the western city of Urumieh. "That was marvellous," Betcolia said.

But Assyro-Chaldeans are not without their criticisms of the president. They particularly resent that Christians are still barred from high administrative functions and from teaching.

"We now have no more than three schools instead of five. But we're listened to. We were given a budget. In Urumieh, a 30,000 square-meter area of land was given to us," Betcolia said.

Maurice Mottamed, the MP for Iran's 30,000 Jews, has not publicly backed any of the 10 presidential candidates.

"I shall vote because it's my national duty... The next president must deal foremost with economic problems, which are serious," Mottamed said.

But he also expressed concern for his community in light of the trial last year of 13 Jews in the southern city of Shiraz. Most of them were condemned of spying on behalf of Israel, in a trial condemned internationally as unfair.

Like the Christians, most Iranian Jews seem to prefer Khatami.

"He has started a dialogue with minorities and we trust him," said Esghagh, a student.

The reformist president also seems to be favored by Iran's 30,000 Zoroastrians, who practice the faith of pre-Islamic Persia.

"The next president will have to develop the economy and work on social progress and international relations," said MP Khosro Dabestani, who called Zorastrians "pure Iranians".

Dabestani expressed no preference among the candidates, but Ardeshir, a 30-year-old Tehran business executive, said he considered Khatami "the best candidate, even if he has not entirely succeeded".

"He considers us true believers, not as fire worshippers, as say certain newspapers. He grew up in (central) Ardakan, surrounded by some of us, without prejudice," he said.

The Iranian constitution, passed in 1979 after Islamic fundamentalists ousted the pro-Western shah, stipulates constitutional representation for the country's Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian minorities.

It however takes no account of Iran's largest non-Muslim community, the Bahais, who according to the US State Department number nearly 350,000.

Iran launched a brutal campaign against the Bahais following the 1979 revolution, leaving some 200 followers of the universalist faith dead.

©Copyright 2001, Agence France-Presse

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