Fires at three religious minority sites in days

Fires at three religious minority sites in days

Fires have been reported at three sites belonging to religious minorities, including a Christian cemetery, in just a few days in Iran.

First, on Friday, the director of antisemitism watchdog ADL, Jonathan Greeblatt, tweeted that the tomb of Biblical figures Queen Esther and her cousin Mordecai in Hamedan, west of Tehran, had been “set afire overnight”, meaning that it would have taken place on the anniversary of the creation of the State of Israel in 1948.

The next day, Iran International posted video footage of the aftermath of a fire inside a Hindu temple in the southern port city of Bandar Abbas.

Then on Sunday, Manoto News broadcast footage of smoke billowing over the walls of a Christian cemetery in Eslamshahr, just south of Tehran.

The governor of Eslamshahr blamed the cemetery fire on a guard burning grass; the Hindu temple fire was blamed on religious artefacts catching alight; only in the case of Esther and Mordecai’s tomb has there been any accusation of intent, with journalist Farzane Ebrahimzade tweeting that someone had thrown an object at the tomb.

The US Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, Elan Carr, tweeted his condemnation of the alleged attack, noting that it followed threats against the tomb’s existence.

The Alliance for the Rights of All Minorities in Iran (ARAM) reported in February that the Iranian authorities were planning to destroy the tomb and convert the site into a consular office for Palestine.

About 10 years previously, Basijis from the local university threatened to destroy the tomb in retaliation for any attack on the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

On the day of the fire, and in the days since, a number of antisemitic tweets have been posted using the hashtag #covid1948, alongside calls for a “free” Palestine.

‘Decades-long dehumanisation’

While there is no evidence of any government involvement in any of the weekend’s fires, and the timing may only be coincidental, Iran has been condemned for directing a campaign of hate speech against religious minorities, and thereby inciting attacks and later failing to stand up against the perpetrators.

Speaking to Article18, Kamran Ashtary, executive director of the Amsterdam-based NGO Arseh Sevom, said: “It is not a secret to anyone that the Islamic Republic of Iran, from the first day of the revolution, has had a problem with minorities, especially religious minorities. 

“We’ve seen a decades-long dehumanisation of Baha’i people that has led to harassment, murder, arrests, and marginalisation. In addition, we know that the regime distributes and creates hateful and antisemitic propaganda and tolerates its spread online via servers located in Iran.”

Yesterday the Iranian Parliament approved a bill barring any cooperation with Israel, including the use of any Israeli computer hardware or software. They had also proposed banning any Iranian athletes from competing with their Israeli counterparts, but this was removed at the last minute.

Meanwhile, this coming Friday will be Quds Day in Iran, an annual event established by the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, to express support for Palestine on the last Friday of Ramadan.

Khomeini’s successor Ali Khamenei has regularly spoken out against minorities, including Christian converts, and implicitly given the green light for his security forces to target them.

In a speech in October 2010 he named house-churches among the “critical threats” facing the Islamic Republic, and in June 2017 he went further by saying: “Officers against the soft war [of Western influences] should recognise their duty, make decisions and act in a fire-at-will form.”

As the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) reported at the time, “Iranian officials often refer to Western cultural influences as a ‘soft war’ against their national and religious values”.

Meanwhile, many of the charges levelled against Christians include alleged “actions against national security” and links to “Zionist” groups.

Following his June 2017 speech, renowned Iranian human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi told CHRI: “Iran’s leader spoke about firing at will only recently, but as a matter of fact, this policy has been in place and enforced for many years. Firing at will means to ignore the law and usher in chaos and anarchy. If someone can fire at will, others will feel they have that right too, and this will only lead to disorder and lawlessness.”

Saeed Peyvandi, a Paris-based sociologist and university professor, told Article18: “The government’s identity-centred discourse and blatant rejection of non-violence have led to a culture of intolerance among some sections of society, especially among pro-government groups. 

“At the same time, in recent years, the judiciary has not taken any serious action against those who harass minorities. Assailants have a kind of judicial immunity for doing what the government cannot do directly, and sanctioned by the words of Mr Khamenei.”