Israel and the US are working to prevent members of an extremist ultra-Orthodox sect from moving to Iran, amid fears they could be used as a bargaining chip by Tehran, it was reported Tuesday.
Members of the Lev Tahor group, which is anti-Zionist, applied for political asylum in Iran in 2018. Documents presented at a US federal court in 2019 showed that leaders of the fringe Hasidic cult requested asylum from Iran and swore allegiance to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
According to the Ynet news site, concerns were building that hundreds of members of the group, mainly based in Guatemala, could be trying to move to Iran after dozens of families were spotted at the airport in Guatemala, apparently on their way to the Kurdistan-Iran border.
The report said that relatives of the Israeli cult members had contacted the Foreign Ministry and Justice Ministry and asked them to urgently contact their Guatemalan counterparts to prevent the families from leaving. Relatives of American members were making similar requests to the US State Department.
“Reaching the Iran-Kurdistan border could cause a mega-political and security event,” the relatives reportedly said.
“The Shalit deal will look like child’s play next to this,” they said, referring to the 2011 prisoner deal with Hamas in which Israel released 1,027 Palestinian terror convicts in exchange for soldier Gilad Shalit, who had been held captive since 2006.
???????? — PHOTOS: A family who is part of the Lev Tahor cult was stopped at the Guatemala airport while on their way to Iran. Their plan was to fly from Kurdistan and from there to Iran. They told police officers that they were being "persecuted" & therefore sought asylum in Iran. pic.twitter.com/8aCYZWSxaa
— Belaaz News (@TheBelaaz) October 6, 2021
According to the report, the Guatemalan authorities have already detained a number of the cult members who hold US citizenship and were allegedly on their way to Iran in recent days, after a request from American authorities.
The report said the cult was initially planning on moving to the Erbil region of Iraq, which borders Iran and which they believe to be biblical Babylon.
Relatives are additionally concerned about Islamic State activity in the region.
A first group has already traveled to the region, with additional members now trying to make their way by air from Guatemala or initially traveling to Mexico and El Salavador before flying out to the Middle East.
According to Yeshiva World News, which first reported on the cult’s attempted move to Iran in recent weeks, one of those already in Iraq was Yosef Hanoch Helbrans, apparently a relative of the cult’s founder. He was accompanied by Amram Moshe Yosef Rosner and Uriel Goldman, the report said.
Rabbi Zvi Gluck, director of Amudim, a Haredi organization in Israel that is involved in helping families, told Ynet the sect has around 280 members with Israeli, American or Canadian citizenship, most of whom even have dual citizenship.
“Most of them are Israeli citizens, so I expect the Israeli government to do everything in its power to find a way to act and help these people,” said Gluck. “If there is a raid on the place, they will not be able to take the children because there is no documentation about [their births]. In addition, when a new family joins the cult, their passports are taken away from them.”
A father of one of the Israeli cult members, named only as “R,” told Ynet that he was deeply concerned for the safety of their family, especially if his daughter and her children were to move to Iran.
“I am very worried about the lives of my daughter and my grandchildren. Every moment they are more at risk. Iran would pose a much greater danger to their lives than the situation they are in at the moment,” he said.
The man said his grandchildren were staying at the encampment in Guatemala but were complaining of stomachaches and various tingling sensations.
“I really do not know what is happening at the encampment in Guatemala. She said they get bread, pumpkin seeds and fruit. They do not eat meat, poultry and fish, but she said they also receive vitamin pills. We told her she should absolutely not take them but I do not know if she listens to us. She is convinced that her way is correct and that it will bring the Messiah,” he said.
The Lev Tahor sect was founded in Jerusalem by Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans in the 1980s. The group fled to Canada and then to Guatemala in 2014 after coming under intense scrutiny by Canadian authorities for alleged child abuse and child marriage.
The group has been described as a cult and as the “Jewish Taliban,” as women and girls older than 3 are required to dress in long black robes covering their entire body, leaving only their faces exposed. The men spend most of their days in prayer and studying specific portions of the Torah.
“Marriages” between minor teenagers and older members are common.
Earlier this year, Guatemalan and US police targeted the sect in a joint raid in the central American nation, arresting two of its leaders on suspicion of abusing and kidnapping children.
The suspects were identified in reports, citing local Guatemalan media, as brothers Shmiel Weingarten and Yoel Weingarten. Sources who have escaped from the cult described the two as the “brains” of Lev Tahor, the Kikar Hashabbat website said.