March 14, 2008 / 2:16 PM / in 9 years

Jews vote in Iran election

4 Min Read

TEHRAN (Reuters) - They live in an Islamic state whose president has questioned the Holocaust and is regularly predicting the demise of Israel.

Iran's ancient Jewish community has declined by two-thirds since the 1979 Islamic revolution and like many people in the country they can be reluctant to publicly criticize its ruling establishment.

Those Iranian Jews who spoke to Reuters after voting in Friday's parliamentary election, in which conservatives are expected to retain their grip, said they faced no problems in the Shi'ite Muslim country for their religion.

"We have been in this country for thousands of years and we will stay," said businessman Edmund Moalemi, 32, after casting his ballot at a synagogue in the capital Tehran.

The United States accuses Iran of discriminating against its religious and ethnic minorities, a charge Tehran rejects.

But Moalemi said: "We have no complaints. We can come here all week and say our prayers."

Such words are likely to please Iranian officials but are at odds with renewed accusations by Washington, Iran's arch-foe, about the Islamic Republic's treatment of minorities.

The U.S. State Department said in its 2007 human rights report this week: "All religious minorities suffered varying degrees of officially sanctioned discrimination, particularly in employment, education and housing."

The Iranian government's anti-Israel stance "created a threatening atmosphere for the community", it said in the section about Jews in Iran.

Judaism is one of three recognized minority religions in Iran. The community has a member in the 290-seat legislature and its own schools. Four other seats are reserved for Iran's Christians and Zoroastrianism, a pre-Islamic religion.

The number of Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians have fallen sharply over the last three decades but their official representatives say economic woes affecting all Iranians and other issues are to blame not any mistreatment of non-Muslims.

Iran denies any discrimination and often responds to such accusations by referring to what it sees as abuses in the West.

President's "Personal Opinion"

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been condemned internationally for describing the Holocaust, the annihilation of six million Jews by Nazi Germany, as a "myth" and calling for the Jewish state to be "wiped off the map".

Voters at the synagogue were reluctant to comment when asked about the president's statements. "That's his personal opinion," said Rahmatollah Shamsian, a 64-year-old textile shop owner, after voting for one of two Jewish candidates.

Teenager Yusef Suferi, standing outside the Jewish polling station in Tehran, said he had never personally encountered any difficulties because of his religious beliefs.

"I have mostly Jewish friends but also some Muslim friends," he said, sporting spiky dark hair and dressed all in black.

"Whenever I enter a mosque I'm received well." Suferi said he might be moving with his father to the United States to join relatives there: "He has no family members living here. Most have left."

Iran's Jewish population has slumped to about 25,000 from 85,000 at the time of the revolution, but is believed to be the biggest Jewish community in the Middle East outside Israel.

Late last year, a prominent Jewish group in Iran sought to distance itself from a secret exodus to Israel by 40 Jews. They rejected any suggestion they were involved in the group's departure and said Jews enjoy good living conditions in Iran.

An Israeli immigration official said the influx was the largest from Iran as a single group in recent years. The newcomers were offered $10,000 each by a Christian and Jewish fellowship to make the move, the official said in December.

Moalemi, the Jewish businessman, said most of those who left in December had later returned to Iran and he voiced confidence about the future for Jews in Iran: "Although people are leaving there are newborns taking their place."

Editing by Samia Nakhoul

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