An ancient shrine revered by Iranian Jews as the burial place of the biblical Esther and Mordechai was reportedly set on fire overnight, US Jewish groups said Friday.
The state-run Islamic Republic News Agency appeared to confirm the attack in a report Saturday that was taken down from its website a couple of hours later, but said there was no major damage to the shrine, the US-backed Radio Farda reported.
According to the report, the perpetrator has been identified from CCTV footage.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center human rights organization said Iranian activists confirmed the arson attack, which came on May 14, the 72nd anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel.
“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 Simon Wiesenthal Center said in a statement, comparing the “barbaric attack” to Nazi desecrations of Jewish sites.
“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, without citing the sources of the report.
“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 condemned the alleged 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.
According to reports in the Iranian press at the time, members of the hard-line student Basij group in Hamadan province, where the shrine is located, released a statement threatening to tear down the building and replace it with a Palestinian consulate, amid anger over the Trump administration’s peace plan released last month.
“Since February, members of the Iranian Basij militia have once again threatened to raze the tomb of historic Jewish heroes Mordechai and Queen Esther. It appears that these domestic terrorists attempted to carry out this outrageous act of desecration with this premeditated attack,” Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations said in its Friday statement.
According to the Alliance for Rights of All Minorities, a US-based group which pushes for religious freedom in Iran, reports in February had included Iranian authorities calling for the site to be torn down, though the veracity of this could not be verified.
Ali Malmir, the head of Hamadan’s tourism office, told the regime’s ISNA news outlet on February 7 that turning the shrine into a consular building would not be possible, noting that the site was protected as a work of historical heritage under Iranian law, and could not fit the needs of a diplomatic office.
However, the head of the Hamadan Basij told the outlet that Iranian officials should see defending Palestinian rights as a more important cultural heritage.
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.
History and tradition of the tomb
According to Israel’s National Library, the tomb was first mentioned by Benjamin of Tudela in the 1100s.
“The city of Hamadan is often associated with Shushan where the Purim story took place in the fourth century BCE,” the Library notes on its website, though it says “another tradition of the Jewish community of Iran explains that Hamadan is, rather, the place where Esther and Mordechai fled after the death of Ahasuerus, fearing that Haman’s followers would assassinate them, and received protection from the city’s Jewish community.”
The mausoleum is thought to have been built in the 1600s. “Between the two tombs is a deep pit covered by a large stone, which, according to one of the traditional stories, leads all the way to Jerusalem,” the Library says. “Adjacent to the tombs is a room that serves as a place for prayer, used also for the reading of the Megillah and family celebrations.
“On the ceiling of the mausoleum is a small niche in which jewels were found at the beginning of the twentieth century by a French explorer, who took them to the Louvre. The Jews of Hamadan believe that the crown found among the jewels had belonged to Queen Esther.
“In 2008, the Iranian government declared the tomb a world heritage site. The government’s protection of the site was removed, however, when Iranian students threatened to destroy it in revenge for the so-called Jewish destruction of Al-Aqsa mosque and the massacre of the Persians mentioned in the Megillah.”