Tehran // In a synagogue in the capital, about 70 Iranian Jews are chanting their early morning selichot prayers. When the Torah scroll is brought out from the holy ark, men in skull caps and women in headscarves rush forward to touch and kiss the ornamented case that holds the scroll.
While the country's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has delivered several fiery speeches against the existence of Israel and Zionism - and more recently thousands of Iranians demonstrated against the Jewish state - Iran's 20,000 to 25,000 Jews said they do not feel alienated in their home country. "The founder of the Islamic republic, Ayatollah Khomeini, had remarkable political insight and he made a clear distinction between the Jewish religion and Zionism," said Dr Siamak Moresadiq, a representative of the Iranian Jewish community in the Iranian parliament.
"Anti-Semitism is a purely western phenomenon. Organised anti-Semitism does not, and did not, exist here in Iran. There have been scattered instances of anti-Jewish propaganda and chauvinism but the conflict between Iran and Israel does not affect the lives of us Iranian Jews," he said. When Mr Ahmadinejad denied that the holocaust happened, the Iranian Jewish community wrote open letters of protest to the president.
"There can be no doubt about the reality of the holocaust or Hitler's racism. But these facts do not allow anyone to take their revenge on others. Palestinians should not pay the price of the crimes of Hitler," Dr Moresadiq said. The Abrishami synagogue where the service was held is one of about 12 still functioning in Tehran. There are many others in such cities as Shiraz and Isfahan, which, after Tehran, has the largest number of Jews.
Before the Islamic Revolution of 1979, an estimated 120,000 Jews lived in Iran. But afterwards, tens of thousands moved abroad, to the United States, Israel and other countries. Even so, Iran still has the largest number of Jews in the Middle East after Israel, where many Jews of Iranian origin now live. Shaul Mofaz, for instance, the Israeli transportation minister and a deputy prime minister who recently lost the Kadima leadership election to Tzipi Livni, was born in Tehran in 1948 and moved with his family to Israel when he was nine.
A second wave of emigration occurred after 13 Jews and eight Muslims were arrested in the southern city of Shiraz in 1999 on charges of illegal contact with Israel and trying to form an illegal organisation. Nine were acquitted. Twelve others - 10 Jews and two Muslims - were sentenced to prison terms from four to 13 years. But by early 2003 all had either been released from prison after serving their term or had been pardoned by the state.
Despite dwindling numbers and the problems associated with living as a religious minority in an Islamic country, the closely knit community has kept up its spirits, and according to some of its members, has become more religious since the Islamic Revolution. Some are even returning from overseas, particularly from the United States and Israel. "They find cultural differences too big and can't adapt themselves to their new environments. I hear that in Israel they have become even more Iranian in character than before because of their nostalgic feelings toward Iran," Dr Moresadiq said.
"[In Iran, we] are free to practise our religion and nobody interferes with our religious affairs. Our community has become more religious than before because the Iranian society as a whole became more religious after the Islamic Revolution. There are no more bars and discos to distract our youth from their religious duties," said Yousef Harounian, a 60-year-old retired engineer with two grown children.
Between 20,000 to 25,000 Jews still live in Iran, a country their ancestors chose as home in the 6th century BC after the Babylonian Exile. There are several very ancient Jewish shrines in Iran, including the shrine of Esther in Hamadan and the shrine of the prophet Daniel in Shush (ancient Susa). Both shrines are also respected and visited by Muslims. Many Iranian Jews fought during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) as drafted soldiers. About 15 were killed.
Dr Moresadiq, who spent three months as a volunteer soldier on the front lines when he was just a teenager, said he thought defending the country was everyone's duty, including Iranian Jews. Farhad Afraim, 20, is a journalist, an active member of the Jewish Association and a student of law at Tehran University. Like all Iranian men, he served two years in the army. Mr Afraim said he prefers to be called an Iranian Jew rather than a Jewish Iranian.
"Things are not ideal, but our life here is a lot more different and much better than what they think abroad," Mr Afraim said. "For example, this is an Islamic country and judges are required to be Muslims with jurisdiction in sharia, so I can't be one. But there is no restriction for becoming a lawyer, and as a lawyer I will be able to represent both Jewish and Muslim clients in court. Where Iranian Jews are involved in legal matters of inheritance, marriage and divorce, all judges are expected to consult Jewish clerical authorities, he said.
In the years after the Islamic Revolution, Jews found it difficult to get jobs in the government, particularly in areas considered sensitive, such as the military. Those restrictions have since been removed, said Dr Rahmatollah Rafi, a US-educated gynecologist and the newly elected chairman of the Jewish Association. But there are other areas the Jewish community would like to see changed too, such as children going to school on the Sabbath, or the day of rest.
Relations between the Muslim and Jewish communities have also improved. Robab Niazi, 72, is sitting in the waiting room of the Dr Sapir Jewish Hospital, in southern Tehran, where decades ago many Jewish people lived. "I know that this hospital is run by the Jews but I have no concerns about that. What they are as humans and what they do as professionals is important, not the religion they follow."