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Iranians protest against the banning of Afghans in Isfahan from a public park on April 1, also known as Nature Day. One of the signs reads, "I Am Also An Afghan."
Afghans living in Isfahan were banned from a mountainous park in the city on April 1, the 13th day of Norouz festivities, which Iranian tradition says should be spent outdoors.

The decision was announced on March 30 by Isfahan’s Committee to Facilitate Travel, which said Afghans were banned from Sofeh Park in order "to ensure citizens' welfare."

Ahmad Reza Shafiei, an official with Travel Committee's police department, was quoted as saying that the reason for the move was "the extensive presence of Afghans" at the park in previous years and "the creation of insecurities for families." By that, he meant Iranian families.

But it was Iranians who quickly condemned the decision on Facebook and other social media.

"I am also an Afghan," some wrote as their Facebook status update. Others slammed the decision as "racist" and an "insult" to Afghans living in Iran.

There was also a report of a symbolic protest on April 1 at Sofeh Park.

A picture widely shared on Facebook shows three young men holding signs decrying racism, including one that says, "I am also an Afghan."

This isn't the first time Afghans in Iran have faced discrimination. There are reportedly more than 1 million Afghan refugees and thousands of illegal Afghan migrants in the Islamic republic.

Many of them moved to Iran following the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal. Others sought refuge in Iran after the Taliban took power in Afghanistan.

In recent years, reports of mistreatment of Afghans -- particularly against those who enter Iran illegally -- have increased.

A YouTube video making the rounds shows a group of Afghans being mistreated, apparently by Iranian soldiers, who tell the Afghans to hit themselves on the head, perform sit-ups, and say aloud, “We will never come to Iran anymore.”

Iranian officials are quick to remind critics that the Islamic republic has been a generous host for more than 2 million Afghan refugees for two decades, with little help from the international community.

But in recent years, Afghans who have entered Iran illegally have been forcefully deported. Some who still live in Iran say they face legal discrimination and restrictions on their right to study and access public places.

Some Iranians blame Afghans for the spread of crime and drugs while others accuse them of stealing jobs at a time of soaring unemployment.

Despite the difficulties, there are still reports of many Afghans returning to Iran in search of menial jobs that usually hold little appeal to Iranians.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari
"We just have to say it out loud: We don't want this war," says Ronny Edry.
Amid the drumbeat of war between Iran and Israel, an Israeli couple has launched an online peace campaign in an effort to reach out to Iranians and say no to a military conflict.

Forty-one-year-old graphic designer Ronny Edry and his partner, 36-year-old Michal Tamir, launched the initiative last week by posting pictures of themselves with their children on a Facebook page with a simple message: "Iranians, we love you. We don't want to bomb your country."

Edry wrote, "To the Iranian people, to all the fathers, mothers, children, brothers, and sisters. For there to be a war between us, first we must be afraid of each other. We must hate. I'm not afraid of you. I don't hate you. I don't even know you. No Iranian ever did me harm."

When he sometimes sees "an Iranian" on television talking about war, he wrote, "I'm sure he does not represent all the people of Iran… If you see someone on your TV talking about bombing you… be sure he does not represent all of us. To all those who feel the same, share this message and help it reach the Iranian people."

Virtual 'Boxing Ring'

In an interview with RFE/RL, the couple said their idea was to create a virtual "boxing ring" where, instead of fighting, one opponent would reach out with both hands to "the other side."

Tamir said it didn't take long for the other side to respond with "moving" messages that made her cry.

"In the last 24 hours, Iranians from inside Iran have been posting on the [Facebook page] pictures of their faces, sometimes half a face and sometimes their reflection through mirrors," Tamir says. "They don't want to be exposed. They...upload in the same format, which is: 'Israelis, we will never bomb your country. We love you.' "

Ronny Edry poses with his daughter as part of his "Israel-Loves-Iran" Facebook initiative.
Ronny Edry poses with his daughter as part of his "Israel-Loves-Iran" Facebook initiative.
Facebook users inside Iran are afraid that any open contact with the Jewish state could result in spying charges against them. Iran does not recognize Israel and Iranian citizens are banned from traveling to Israel.

Some of the pictures posted by Iranians appear to be from those living outside the country who are not afraid of reprisal.

The couple, who have since begun a new Facebook page called "Israel Loves Iran," have also launched a blog and say they have received many private messages from Iranians who have asked them not to make their names or profiles public.

'Reunion Of Brothers And Sisters'

One message from a person in Tehran that the couple posted anonymously reads, "Some people said this is start of a friendship between two countries but I say (based on the two countries' history) this is reunion of brothers and sisters who lost each other over time and finally find each other."

WATCH -- Ronny Edry makes his case via YouTube:



Another Iranian woman wrote that she wanted to ensure Israelis that Iranians just want "peace and beauty on the Earth."

"We hate war and slaughter. We all are the parts of one body and it hurts when you see a human suffering, since she or he is a part of your soul," she wrote.

'Say It Out Loud'

Tamil says the page has brought down "a wall" and now people from both sides can communicate directly and bypass politicians.

She says social media has empowered people like her and allowed her to raise her voice against "a war no one wants."

The couple plans to try and raise money to take the campaign beyond Facebook, possibly onto billboards so it can reach a wider audience.

Edry says he hopes it will eventually impact decisionmakers.

"It's our duty as the people to change the minds, to say out loud that we don't want it," Edry says. "For so many years, we are so afraid of just talking and they are saying the war is coming and the Iranians are going to bomb us and the Israelis are going to bomb back and everybody is afraid and waiting and no one says [anything].

"We just have to say it out loud: We don't want this war. Israelis and Iranians we have no beef one with each other."

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About This Blog

Persian Letters is a blog that offers a window into Iranian politics and society. Written primarily by Golnaz Esfandiari, Persian Letters brings you under-reported stories, insight and analysis, as well as guest Iranian bloggers -- from clerics, anarchists, feminists, Basij members, to bus drivers.

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