Iranian officials confirmed Saturday that a fire had broken out early Friday morning at the site of an ancient shrine revered by Iranian Jews as the burial place of the biblical Esther and Mordechai, stressing that no damage was done to the hall housing the tomb itself.
An investigation has revealed that a person was caught in CCTV footage trying to enter the holy site through an adjacent bank and “perform a series of actions” but “failed,” opposition news sites said, citing a report in the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA).
The report said the cameras had registered the person’s face, but “information about the person’s motives and identity cannot be provided until they are arrested.”
The IRNA report was deleted from its website two hours after its publication Saturday morning, the Radio Farda and Iran International websites said.
The attack came on May 15, the day after the 72nd anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel and marked as Nakba Day, or the day of catastrophe, raising widespread suspicion that it was a hate crime against Jews and the Jewish state.
اما در همان زمان هم مردم همدان اعلام کردند که میراث فرهنگیاشان حراست میکنند. مقبره استر و مردخای در مرکز شهر همدان، ابتدای خیابان دکتر شریعتی قرار دارد. بُقعه اِستِر و مردخای جزء مهمترین زیارتگاههای یهودیان ایران و جهان است. #استرمردخای
این فیلم هم همین امروز گرفته شده است pic.twitter.com/vHuyWxoUBd
— Farzane Ebrahimzade (@febrahimzade) May 16, 2020
The head of Hamedan province’s cultural heritage and tourism office, Ali Malmir, said only minor damage was caused to the holy site by the fire, Iranian state-affiliated news sites Fars and ISNA reported Saturday.
Some of the wires and a carpet in a side building were burned but the shrine itself appeared not to have been touched by the fire, he said, adding that there were no injuries.
Malmir said an investigation into the incident was ongoing.
First images from Tomb of Esther and Mordechai in city of #Hamedan: a small fire in an adjacent building to tomb occured on Thursday. Still unclear if it was an arson or not. President of Iranian #Jewish Community Humayun Sami-yeh visits the site. #Iran pic.twitter.com/AFXRUQSE3Q
— Fereshteh Sadeghi فرشته صادقی (@fresh_sadegh) May 17, 2020
He said restoration work to fix the damage would begin this week.
Raz Zimmt, a veteran Iran analyst at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, said that recent photos of the facility’s outer door show two pieces of graffiti, one showing slain Iranian top commander Qassem Soleimani with the writing “Severe revenge” and the other showing Hezbollah terror group chief Hassan Nasrallah with the writing “The fulfilled promise.”
It was unclear whether they were sprayed by the arsonist or had been there before, Zimmt said.
תמונה (לא ברור אם עדכנית) של הכניסה לקבר אסתר ומרדכי בהמדאן. תמונת סולימאני והכיתוב "נקמה קשה" מימין והכיתוב "ההבטחה שמומשה" של נצראללה מצד שמאל ולכאורה פגיעה במגן דוד שמעל לכניסה. ייתכן תוצאה של מעשה החבלה אמש במתחם הקבר. https://t.co/vDiszD534g pic.twitter.com/XJqspT0lfs
— raz zimmt (@RZimmt) May 16, 2020
The burial site of Esther and Mordechai is a sensitive issue in contemporary Iran, as the Islamist regime has often stressed that it draws a distinction between Jews and Zionists and has vowed to safeguard the local Jewish communities, its synagogues and other holy sites.
On the other hand, more radical forces in Iran, including hardline MPs, view the grave as a site that glorifies the story of Purim — what some extremists call the “Iranian Holocaust” — and have long threatened to destroy it.
Most recently, local politicians vowed to raze the shrine and turn it into a consulate of Palestine, if Israel goes ahead with its plans to annex large parts of the West Bank.
Persian-speaking social media users expressed outrage at the attempted arson, arguing that the act wasn’t representative of the Iranian people.
Kiyomars Sahami wrote on Facebook: “I feel sorry for myself that I am from the City of Hamedan. A bunch of stupid and ultra-religious illiterates are making up the majority of this city. I wish that they had read the holy book and knew the important figures of the history. Hamedan was in the past one of the cities in Iran where Jews lived and today there is a Jewish cemetery in Hamedan.”
Afshin Moradi wrote: “Iran and Iranians are not anti-Semites. These are the ayatollahs who have issues with the entire world.”
Abbas Tabatabaei said: “This is not the first time that this tomb and historical site is attacked by the regime’s thugs. A few years ago, they dug up a tunnel in order to ruin and loot this tomb but they failed. These ayatollahs and Islamists are so bastard and evil that even attack a tomb… They are even more evil than Satan because even Satan does not do anything to the dead.”
The Simon Wiesenthal Center rights organization condemned the attack in a statement Saturday, comparing the “barbaric attack” to Nazi desecrations of Jewish sites.
“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,” it said.
“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.
“We hope that the authorities bring the perpetrators of this #antisemitic act to justice & commit to protecting the holy sites of all religious minorities in Iran,” Greenblatt said.
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations also condemned the incident.
“We are outraged by reports that the Tomb of Esther and Mordechai in Hamedan, Iran, was desecrated by arson last night,” a statement said.
“This abhorrent and unconscionable act represents not only a blatantly anti-Semitic assault on Jews and Judaism, but an assault on all people of faith. It must be unequivocally condemned by the international community. The government of Iran must act to prevent further attacks and bring to justice those responsible.”
The incident followed reports in February that Iranians were threatening to raze the shrine in an act of revenge against Israel and Washington.
The building is believed to hold the tombs of Esther and Mordechai, the heroes of the Jewish Purim story, in which they frustrate plans by a Persian viceroy to destroy the Jewish community there.
While the site is protected under Iranian law, officials in 2011 reportedly downgraded its status, weeks after a protest was held at the site in response to unfounded claims that Israel was threatening to tear down the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.