Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Post #18 - More than Muslims

Iran has a long history of religious diversity.

Zoroastrian temple, Isfahan; American visitors
Zoroastrians, perhaps the first to say “God is one” (even before Jews or Christians) began their historical journey in what is now Iran in the seventh century BCE; there are today about 45,000 adherents in Iran, with many others living in India (there they are known as Parsi's, or Persians), Europe, the United States and elsewhere. Their ancient tradition is also one that is exceptionally tolerant of the traditions that have come after it.

Synagogue in Tehran
Jews have been resident in Iran for nearly 2700 years, when they sought to escape King Nebuchadnezzar II around 680 BC, and more of them arrived 140 years later when released from their Babylonian bondage through the mercy of the Persian emperor of the time, Cyrus the Great, who also restored to them gold and silver confiscated by Nebuchadnezzar. Some returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple and others chose to go to the country of their benefactor. About half the country’s 85,000 Jews left after the Islamic Revolution; perhaps 25,000 now remain in Iran.

On a visit to the principal synagogue in Tehran, I spoke with Mr. Arash Abaie, a leader of the Jewish community in the Iranian capital. Abaie edits a Jewish magazine, lectures, prepares curricula for Jewish students, and participates in interfaith dialogue. This temple is part of the second oldest Jewish community on earth (after the land of Israel). Iranian Jews are nominally Sephardic, but have some Ashkenazi traditions. (Interestingly, distinctions of Orthodox, Reform or Conservative Judaism do not exist in Iran.) There are several seats in the majlis or parliament (in a tradition dating back to the early 20th century) designated for religious minorities, based roughly on population figures, currently two Armenian Christians and one each Zoroastrian, Jewish and Assyrian. By contrast, the 20% of Israel's population who are Arabs, according to American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, are represented by 12 members (out of 120) in the 17th Knesset of Israel, none of whom are cabinet members, except a minister-without-portfolio.

The year I visited (2006) saw an unlikely television drama reaching the "top of the charts" in Iran. An hour-long, 22-episode series called, "Zero Degree Turn," featured a love story between a Muslim Iranian-Palestinian man and a Jewish French woman. In it, the man saves his love from the Nazi camps, Iranian diplomats in France forge passports and the woman and her family escape on an airplane carrying Iranian Jews to their homeland. The reviewer for the Wall Street Journal wrote:

"Every Monday night at 10 o'clock, Iranians by the millions tune into Channel One to watch the most expensive show ever aired on the Islamic republic's state-owned television. Its elaborate 1940s costumes and European locations are a far cry from the typical Iranian TV fare of scarf-clad women and gray-suited men. But the most surprising thing about the wildly popular show is that it is a heart-wrenching tale of European Jews during World War II."

"Iranians have always differentiated between ordinary Jews and a minority of Zionists," says Hassan Fatthi, the show's writer and director. "The murder of innocent Jews during World War II is just as despicable, sad and shocking as the killing of innocent Palestinian women and children by racist Zionists soldiers," he says. "In this show, you notice that a new method of political dialogue is being promoted that is more in line with the modern world," says Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a reformist cleric and former Iranian vice president.

This is not to say that there has been no discrimination toward Jews in Iran, and tense relations with Israel have had repercussions domestically, but official treatment is generally good. "If you think Judaism and Zionism are one, it is like thinking Islam and the Taliban are the same, and they are not," says Ciamak Moresadegh, chairman of the Tehran Jewish Committee. "We have common problems with Iranian Muslims. If a war were to start, we would also be a target. When a missile lands, it does not ask if you are a Muslim or a Jew. It lands." (Reported in Christian Science Monitor, April 27, 2007) In October, JTA ("The Global News Service of the Jewish People") reported that evangelical Christians were offering cash incentives in an attempt to entice Iranian Jews to emigrate to Israel. "The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which is sponsoring the program, has raised $1.4 million for the aliyah project. It increased the grant offer to $10,000 from $5,000 after a lower-than-expected response rate, The Associated Press reported."

Armenian Cathedral, Isfahan
Christians have been worshiping Jesus Christ in Iran centuries longer than our European ancestors and nearly three hundred years longer than there have been Muslims in Iran. They have been a part of Persian culture continuously since the early 4th century, and now number about 200,000. Though they have no theological seminary in Iran, they have regular interchanges with co-religionists in Armenia and the West. The liturgy the Iranian Armenians use today differs little from the one in which I participate each Sunday.

Muslims are in the greatest number in modern Iran; Islam has been declared the state religion. But it has been notably less successful there than in many other countries in supplanting the indigenous culture and its ways of looking at the world. Until the 1979 revolution, wine such as that made from the well-known Shiraz grape (named for a city in central Iran) was drunk by most Iranians.

Under the current government, Baha’i’s, whose tradition grew out of “twelver” Shi'ite Islam during the 19th century, are the one group in Iran who have endured serious persecution, sometimes severe, in the land where their faith had its first expression. Baha'is claim a total membership of five million worldwide. [More on this in a later blog.]

The late Terence O’Donnell was an American who lived in Iran from 1957 to 1971. He acted as one of my mentors when I prepared for my encounter with Iranian culture as a Peace Corps Volunteer. O'Donnell wrote a book of short stories set in old Iran entitled Seven Shades of Memory. In one story, he wrote of a summer afternoon’s chat between leaders of the Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities in the city of Esfahan in a time long before automobiles or the Internet were on the scene:

   Bishop Kent stood up, brushing off the seat of his pants. “My word. It’s late. I must be off to evensong.”
   The Imam drew his cloak around him. “And I to the mosque for the call to prayer.”
   “And I am late for kaddish,” the Rabbi said.
   “Yes,” said the Imam, standing up, “we must hurry to God.”
   “Don’t trip on the way,” the Rabbi laughed.
   “Rabbi,” the Imam stood on one leg, “you are too droll, always your little jokes. But,” he smiled, shaking his finger at Rabbi Garbade, “we shall see, we shall see in eternity who reaches paradise first.”
   “Ah, yes, in eternity,” the Archbishop sadly said. “There at last we shall be as one. But at least,” he smiled, “here in our beloved Isfahan we have come close to it, haven’t we.”

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