The Fascinating History and Political Lives of Jews in Iran

As American Jews and non-Jews we should be outraged at how the Trump administration is endangering Iranian civil society and making their efforts for change much harder.

(Note: this was published on December 24, 2019.  It’s a side of the threat raised by the assassination of a prominent Iranian general under orders from Donald Trump that will not be covered by the mainstream media – the threat it poses to Christian and Jewish minorities).

codepink_1On December 14, 2019, a white male entered the Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills, vandalizing the sanctuary. He unrolled Torah scrolls, strew them across the floor, and tore prayer books. Four days later, police arrested 24-year-old Nathaniel Anton of Millersville, Pennsylvania and charged him with vandalism of religious property, commercial burglary, and committing a hate crime. As I heard about this latest antisemitic attack, this time on a Persian synagogue, I thought back to my recent visit to the country of Iran this past October.

The first association that comes to mind when invoking Iran is not usually one of synagogues. Most would be surprised to know that after Israel, the Islamic Republic is home to the largest population of Jews in the Middle East. The Jewish populations numbers somewhere between 9,000 (according to the 2012 Iranian census) and 15,000 (according to an August 2018 interview with the Iranian Jewish Community published in USA Today). As I prepared to lead a CODEPINK peace delegation to Iran, one of my goals was to explore Iran’s Jewish community.

Given that the Iranian state’s imposition of Islamic law on its entire population, the crippling sanctions imposed by the US, the President Trump’s travel ban preventing Iranians from visiting their relatives in the US, and Israel’s open invitation to help Iranian Jews immigrate, I was anxious to discover why in the world Iran’s population of Jews choose to remain.

On the first morning after our arrival, our group of 12, one-third of whom were Jewish, boarded our tour bus to visit Iran’s largest synagogue, the Yusef Abad synagogue in Tehran. The first thing we noticed was the lack of security. Walk by any synagogue in Manhattan and you will find at least one security guard, usually more. Last year walking by the Københavns synagogue in Copenhagen, Denmark, I was struck by how the religious sanctuary was like an unwelcoming fortress. The entire building was surrounded by an iron gate and the entrance had an armed guard and far more defenses than you find in most airports. Iran’s Yusef Abad synagogue, however, had no security guard, or even a local congregant posted at the front door. The door was unlocked and we walked right in. The lack of security, we learned, was because synagogues in Iran are safe places.

Our visit took place on the last day of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot and we were able to witness the ceremony of shaking the lulav, while the worshipers circled around an ancient Torah in prayer style of Sephardic Jews (Jews from Spain, Portugal, and other places).




War or no war? Iranians in California try to make sense of US-Iran tensions

(Note:  This piece appeared on the PRI site in June.  What it addresses has suddenly become even more pertinent given the escalation of tensions between the US and Iran over the past few days).

img_0293For more than 40 years, Homa Sarshar has kept a handful of documents inside a safe at her home: club membership cards, bank records, old passports.

There is one document that is familiar to nearly all Iranians: a turquoise airline ticket that bears the mythical bird of happiness — the iconic logo of Iran’s national airline.

“This ticket is useless [today], but it’s a part of my past,” Sarshar says.

The ticket is from Tehran, and the date on it reads 1979. That year brought with it the Islamic Revolution, which forever changed Iran and the whole region. For Sarshar, 1979 was the beginning of her life in exile, something that she never expected. That year brought her and many thousands of other Iranians all the way to Los Angeles, a city sometimes referred to as Tehrangeles.

According to the US census, today, about 180,000 people who claim Iranian ancestry live across California. Some say hearing calls for war between the US and Iran is like a “roller coaster ride” — and opinions vary on whether they’d support US military strikes.

Iranian American radio host Homa Sarshar at her home in Los Angeles. She holds the plane ticket that brought her to the US more than 40 years ago.

Iranian American radio host Homa Sarshar at her home in Los Angeles. She holds the plane ticket that brought her to the US more than 40 years ago.

Credit: Shirin Jaafari

Why California?

Persis Karim, director of the Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies at San Francisco State University, says California attracted thousands of Iranians because they had ties to the state.

“Iran sent many students abroad in the ’60s and the ’70s. And California was the epicenter, because we had the Higher Education Act [of 1965], which made college education more affordable at that time, including for foreign students,” she says, adding that California’s mild weather appealed to Iranians too.

The Iranian diaspora in Los Angeles is diverse. There are Muslims, Christians, Baha’is and Zoroastrians, among others.


The world’s indifference to Muslim woes



Imagine if China had incarcerated upwards of a million Christians. Or India said it would take all refugees except Christian ones. The west would be in a state of frenzy. Since both China and India’s targets are Muslim, their cause is given short shrift. Both US president Donald Trump and UK prime minister Boris Johnson claim to champion oppressed Christians. By downplaying much larger-scale violations against Muslims, they jeopardise what remains of the west’s human rights credibility. Such passivity reinforces the global shift to religious nationalism that began in the Muslim world.

The coming year will test whether these double standards are here to stay. Because Muslims are resented more than other minorities, their plight tests whether liberal democracy means what it claims to mean.

There are two reasons Muslims rank lower on the global totem pole than other groups. The first is politics. Opinion polls across the west — and beyond — show Muslims as the least trusted minority. They are thought to integrate less well and be more supportive of terrorism. People believe the Muslim reproductive rate is higher than other groups. Almost a quarter of the world’s population — roughly 1.8bn people — are Muslim.

The second is how badly most of the Muslim world treats its minorities. Whether it is Coptic Christians in Egypt, Shias in Saudi Arabia, or Sunnis in Iran, Muslim-majority countries are among the worst places in to be a minority. Do not even think of being Jewish in an Arab country. Combine these two stereotypes and you have a world that is largely callous about the fate of Muslims where they are a minority. To put it crudely, popular opinion is telling them to taste their own medicine. The fact that Muslim countries, particularly in the Arab world, have barely raised a whisper against the plight of the Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang, or protested against India’s Hindu nationalist makeover, only underlines the loneliness of Muslim minorities. Even their own look the other way.


Muslims help to build a church in Burkina Faso

mmn-burkina-faso-Kodeni-church-rChurches were first planted around Bobo-Dioulasso, and today worship takes place in three locations, the newest in Kodeni.

It began with Ousmane Hié, a teenager from Kodeni, who was forced to end his education due to lack of family resources. He worked for two years as an apprentice to an auto mechanic.

“My wife, Claire, and I saw much potential in Ousmane, and Claire helped him get back into school,” said Siaka Traoré, who has retired from formal leadership positions with the Evangelical Mennonite Church of Burkina Faso.

Each Sunday, Ousmane and three of his siblings walked about three miles from Kodeni to attend the Mennonite church in Bobo. Claire Traoré helped them get their paperwork in order so they, too, could attend school. These four children were the beginning of the Mennonite church in their village.

Three evening meetings were held in Kodeni to celebrate World Day of Evangelism in 2016. Because of this outreach, more than 50 children gathered for worship and Sunday school in a classroom of a nearby public school. This church plant is led by Samuel Traoré, a Bible school student from the Bobo congregation.

Believing this new congregation would soon outgrow a classroom, a plot of land was sought. As soon as the land was purchased, people from the church visited those living in the neighborhood. All Muslims, they extended a warm welcome and began giving valuable building tips.

“Each time we visited our new plot of land, we first visited our neighbors, especially the family of the imam whose property adjoined our church plot,” Traoré said. “God seemed to precede each encounter and soften their hearts so that they were friendly toward us, even though there is much distrust and persecution between Christians and Muslims in our country.

“Because of our good relationship with the imam’s family, we asked if they would guard our construction materials — cement, boards, shovels and wheelbarrows — against theft.

“What is even more remarkable is that when our church members have work days, Muslim youth come and help us build our church.”


At Christmas, Christians and Muslims take time to talk about loving Jesus, and each other

GettyImages_460629094.6(RNS) — In the immediate aftermath of the 2016 presidential elections, when we felt the country needed a message of unity and hope, the Rev. Andy Stoker, of First Methodist Church in Dallas, and I released a video on Facebook about our friendship called “An Imam, A Pastor, and A Dream,” in hopes that it would inspire others.

It spread rapidly online, with millions of views within the first few days. Those who commented saw in that five-minute clip the type of connection they wished to see in their own communities.

Little did we know just how far it would reach. Shortly after its release, I got a phone call informing me that ISIS had made a video about our video. In theirs, they referred to me as “the Apostate Omar Suleiman” and called for their followers to assassinate me [].

I was unnerved by the news, but I knew I had to tell Andy what had happened before he found out through some other source. When I called, he not only didn’t shy away, he began the conversation that led to our next effort together. We decided in the wake of ISIS’ threat that we weren’t going to let any fools stop us from being brothers. Not here, and not thousands of miles away.

That spring of 2017, we began offering a month-long class about Jesus in Islam and Christianity. For four weeks, our Christian and Muslim communities came together to discuss Jesus in our respective faiths. The pews at First United Methodist were full, according to the Reverend Andy Stoker.

The tranquility and bonds formed over that month had captivated us all. At the end of our last session there wasn’t a dry eye in the church.

Rev. Andy and I had started with the birth of Christ, then went on to his life, ending with our differences on the meaning of the crucifixion, then finally came to Jesus’ second coming. In the first two weeks, we found little difference in how our two faiths viewed Jesus in birth and life.

Jesus is no ordinary figure to Muslims. He is one of the highest prophets and messengers of God, born of a virgin, chosen as the one to restore justice to this earth in its final days, and distinguished in the hereafter with a special place in paradise. He is mentioned in the Quran 25 times, with an entire chapter named after his honored mother, Mary.

Muhammad said about his relationship to him, “Both in this world and in the Hereafter, I am the nearest of all the people to Jesus, the son of Mary. The prophets are paternal brothers; their mothers are different, but their religion is one.”


Jihad a misunderstood concept

Ramadan26-1In the Islamic tradition, jihad has several different components, including personal struggles

By Sheikh Muhammad Ali Waiswa

As we conclude the year 2019, one out of many that we celebrate and applaud are the interfaith relations under the umbrella of the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda (IRCU), which has culminated in many achievements, especially national dialogue process, which President Yoweri Museveni gave a blessing.

In order to enhance that spirit of peaceful co-existence, I wish to address one of the misconceptions in a bid to strengthen the appreciation of diversity.

Politicians and anti-Muslim activists frequently take to audiences and websites to criticise the term jihad as a form of Islamic supremacism, oppression and violence. Muslim extremists, on the other hand, argue that jihad refers to a “holy war” against non-Muslims. Viewing the term jihad through these frameworks alone, however, would be playing into the hands of extremists, who forego the other elements encompassed by the term jihad.

In the Islamic tradition, jihad has several different components, including personal struggles, such as the fight against an addiction; social struggles, such as the struggle to become tolerant of others; and occasionally a military struggle, if and when necessary, but only in self-defence.

When asked, “What is the major jihad?” Muhammad replied: “The jihad of the self (or the struggle against the personal self).” Contrary to the rhetoric and misinformation about jihad in anti-Islam networks, Muhammad did not say that the violent struggle was the most important form of jihad.

The hysteria in the western world and other non-Muslim countries over jihad has brought me to consider the term through a Christian perspective. In this article, I hope to explore how forms of jihad are presented in Islam and Christianity. This exercise can help to find common characteristics of jihad so that Muslims and Christians can build bridges of mutual understanding and tolerance.


Lutheran pastor, Muslim doctor discuss common ground in ‘Love Thy Neighbor’ conversation in Willmar, Minnesota

122419.N.WCT.LoveThyNeighbor.0062WILLMAR — While there are unarguably many differences between Christianity and Islam, the overarching message of the interfaith dialogue last week Willmar was there is more common ground than one might expect and the differences should not keep people apart.

“It is OK to be friends and neighbors with people that are different than you,” said the Rev. Mandy France, pastor of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Bird Island. “It is OK to be in a relationship with people who don’t believe what you believe.”

France and Dr. Ayaz Virji, of Dawson, conducted their 26th “Love Thy Neighbor” event Dec. 20 in front of a crowd of about 100 people at the Barn Theatre in Willmar. Virji and France have for a couple of years now been giving these talks, based on Virji’s book “Love Thy Neighbor: A Muslim Doctor’s Struggle for Home in Rural America.”

The duo started them following the 2016 election, when Virji and his family started to experience a significant rise in Islamophobia in their home of Dawson, where Virji is a family practice physician.

“After the election, things did change, for whatever reason,” Virji said.

At the start of the Willmar presentation, they made sure to let people know they had no other agenda beyond starting a conversation.

“We are not here to argue or debate anyone. We are not hear to convert anyone,” France said. “The religion or whatever you walked in with, you are going to walk out with.”

During the two-hour presentation, France and Virji shared their stories about how they came together to give these presentations across the country. Virji shared information about Islam, and the two questioned each other about their respective religions. There was also a short question-and-answer segment with the audience toward the end.

Virji and his family had moved to Dawson in 2013, when Virji felt a calling to practice medicine in rural America, where there is a shortage of physicians. The treatment his family was receiving following the election made him start to rethink that mission. His family, including his young children, were called suicide bombers and terrorists to their faces, and Virji regularly receives hate mail.

“This is nonsense,” Virji said and he was thinking of leaving it all behind. While he accepted a position with New York University in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Virji continues to live and work in Dawson for part of the year.

France, who in 2016 was an intern pastor, talked Virji into giving a presentation about Islam in Dawson, to teach people and show them there is nothing to fear.

“The message of the Bible is love. It was really conflicting to me,” France said of the treatment she witnessed Virji and his family receiving and the comments she heard from people who identify as Christian.

For Virji, Islam is a religion of peace and love and it’s just as much about good deeds as belief.

“Faith is a verb, you have to do it,” Virji said.