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Arrests hang over Iran's small Jewish community

By Afshin Valinejad

SHIRAZ, Iran, January 2, 2000(AP) -- At a synagogue in the heart of this ancient city's Jewish quarter, worshippers end their Sabbath service with a solemn prayer for 13 loved ones jailed by Iranian authorities on accusations of espionage.

"We pray that those we love will be safely among us soon," the rabbi murmurs, then hundreds of people shuffle into the Rabeezadeh Synagogue's courtyard to exchange greetings and news and gossip about their small community.

"They are never far from my mind," said Arman Goel, a teen-ager who knows some of those arrested well. "Even my grades have dropped since they were taken."

The spy case has cast a pall over the 6,000 Jews of Shiraz, the ancient capital of the Persian empire whose wealth and tolerance were a magnet for people of all faiths.

Among the 13 who are in prison are merchants, religious teachers, two civil servants and a 17-year-old boy, said Eshaq Niknava, head of the Jewish Society of Shiraz. Eleven are from Shiraz, two from nearby Isfahan.

The first were arrested one and a half years ago, while others were arrested last March. They have been accused of spying for Israel and the United States, Iranian authorities say, but formal charges have not been brought.

In another case in January 1997, two Jews were hanged at Tehran's Evin prison on similar spying charges.

The plight of the imprisoned Jews has attracted attention from the United States, Israel and several European countries that have demanded Iran free the suspects.

The attention, though, especially from Israel, has created new pressures. Relatives of those held fear that the more their loved ones are defended by the West and Israel, the more adamant Iranian authorities are about pressing the case.

"We should let the issue solve itself quietly, that's the only way," said the wife of one of the men in jail, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Relatives said they had received hints at least some of the Jews would be freed soon. They feared that speaking on the record, or saying anything more about the plight of their loved ones, could jeopardize a release.

Family members get one 5-minute visit every Tuesday. They used to deliver kosher food on each visit, but prison authorities banned that several months ago, saying the food was rotting because prisoners had no refrigerators, relatives said. The inmates now eat prison food.

One woman recounted how her husband was arrested about a year ago.

"Some men knocked on our door at midnight and took my husband," she said. "It took me three months to see him. Now I get to see him for five minutes every week, with a thick glass wall between us, but that's all right."

She said some Muslim neighbors who are close friends had taught her a verse from the Koran that she recites every night.

"One of our Muslim neighbors even went on pilgrimage to a shrine outside Shiraz just to pray for my husband," she said. "Before all this happened, we all lived in absolute peace and harmony."

Iran's Jewish community, although it has dwindled over the decades, remains the Middle East's largest outside Israel. Iranian Jews are allowed to practice aspects of their religion but are forbidden to teach Hebrew, the liturgical language.

Several times a week Jewish boys and girls gather at Shiraz's House of Jewish Youth at the Khorasaniha Synagogue for religious classes conducted by Ebrahim Bassalla, a civil servant and volunteer teacher.

During a class on the Sabbath, Bassalla recited the biblical tale of Jacob and Joseph to a group of 50 boys and girls aged between 7 and 17.

"You should respect your parents. Never question when your parents ask you to do something," he advises in a fatherly tone.

"And you should never waste water, bread and electricity," he tells them before passing out small boxes of cookies he has bought with his own money, and sending them off. Sometimes, he also treats the kids to the movies.

The synagogue, one of 16 scattered around Shiraz, has its own library of books, videos and audio tapes.

Three butcher shops sell only kosher meat, and Niknava, the community leader, supervises the slaughter at the municipal slaughterhouse, which provides refrigerated trucks to transport the meat.

Niknava is negotiating with authorities for another Jewish cemetery because the only one in Shiraz is nearly full.

In the Jewish quarter, which lies inside the main commercial district off bustling Karim Khan Zand Avenue, nearly half the shops remain closed on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath.

At its height, Iran's Jewish community numbered about 100,000 and was still around 80,000 just before Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution. Now there are about 25,000 Jews.

Most who left went to the United States, Europe and, to a lesser degree, Israel, said Dr. Manouchehr Eliasi, the single Jewish representative in the 270-seat Majlis, or parliament.