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Iranian Officials Say Minimal Damage At Ancient Jewish Site After Allegations Of Arson Attack

Fire damage at the Tomb of Esther and Mordechai in Hamedan, Iran.

Iranian officials say a revered ancient Jewish site in the west central province of Hamedan, where the biblical queen Esther and her cousin Mordechai are believed to have been buried, has sustained minimal damage following a fire reported over the weekend.

The cause of the incident on May 15, which U.S.-based Jewish groups have condemned as an “anti-Semitic” attack, is still not clear.

Authorities have said that the incident is being investigated.

Speaking on May 17 as he visited the site, the head of Tehran’s Jewish community Homayoun Somayeh said that the shrine of Esther and Mordechai is “completely intact,” adding that the incident has been “magnified and exaggerated” by the enemies of the Islamic republic.

“Religious minorities, especially Jews, live in this country under the shadow of the Islamic Republic and all-round support from the government, and are grateful for the services of the government and the system,” he was quoted as saying by the semiofficial Mehr news agency.

Ali Malmir, head of Hamedan’s Cultural Heritage and Tourism department, also said that no damage has been inflicted on the main tomb of Esther and Mordechai by a “limited fire” in a nearby building which was immediately extinguished.

The tomb, pictured before the fire.
The tomb, pictured before the fire.

He also said that some of the wires and a carpet in the side building were burned, while adding that the restoration of the site will start this week. He said that the cause of the fire will be announced as soon as determined.

Hamedan’s prosecutor, Hassan Khanjani, told the semiofficial ISNA news agency over the weekend that police had not reached a conclusion on the cause of the fire and that no arrests have been made so far.

The official comments come following condemnations by Jewish groups who said the fire at the ancient Jewish site, which is on Iran’s cultural heritage list, was an act of anti-Semitism.

Iran’s official government news agency published a report on May 16 saying an individual was caught on CCTV while trying to enter the holy site on May 15, the day after the anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel, to “perform a series of actions.” But the report was later removed without an explanation.

“Disturbing reports from #Iran that the tomb of Esther & Mordechai, a holy Jewish site, was set afire overnight,” tweeted Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt on May 15, without providing details about the source of the reports.

U.S. Special Envoy To Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Elan Carr also “strongly” condemned the attack, which he noted came after a threat to the site in February when a Basij group warned that it would destroy the revered Jewish site and replace it with a consulate of Palestine to protest against a peace plan released by the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump.

"Iran's regime is the world's chief state sponsor of #Antisemitism," Carr said on Twitter.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center said in a statement issued on May 16 that it had received reports about the “arson attack” directly from Iranian activists.
“Historically, Muslims safeguarded Jewish holy sites from Persia to Morocco, including the Tomb of Esther and Mordechai. But all that has changed under the Ayatollahs and the terrorist movements they have spawned. In recent years there have been annual anti-Semitic protests at the Holy Site where Jews have come to pray peacefully for hundreds of years,” the human rights organization said, while calling on world leaders to condemn the “cowardly anti-Semitic attack and Iran’s serial anti-Semitic policies.

The Islamic republic, home to the Middle East’s largest population of Jews, does not recognize the state of Israel.

Iran holds annual anti-Israeli rallies on Quds Day, which is marked on the last Friday of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

This year's Quds Day rallies will not be held due to the coronavirus pandemic that has killed over 67,000 Iranians and infected more than 120,000, according to official numbers. Real figures are believed to be significantly higher.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani has said that in the capital, Tehran, Quds Day participants will drive in their vehicles rather than march through the streets to avoid spreading the coronavirus. In areas considered to be low risk, participants will be allowed to attend Friday Prayers while respecting health protocols, local media has reported.

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