Yemenite authorities reportedly arrested a local Jewish man on suspicion of helping to smuggle an ancient Torah scroll to Israel, along with 17 members of the community who were secretly taken to Israel earlier this week.
The Orthodox man was detained by police after images of the scroll were widely circulated online, Britain’s Jewish Chronicle reported Thursday.
On Monday, 17 members of the dwindling community were flown to Israel following a year-long secret operation involving the Jewish Agency for Israel and the US State Department.
Yemen’s Houthi leadership considers the 500-year-old scroll to be “the property of the Yemeni people,” the report noted.
A Muslim airport employee, who allegedly allowed the rabbi of the Jewish delegation to board the plane with the scroll, was also arrested for his part in the operation.
Moti Kahana, an Israeli-American businessman living in New York, who helped orchestrate the covert immigration operation, expressed concern the man was being tortured in custody.
“When I saw the scroll in the media I knew the Yemenite government would complain — they would say that international law was broken,” Kahana said according to the report.
A Jewish Agency spokesman was not able to confirm the reported arrests to the Chronicle.
“The notion that the Torah should have been left, without protection, in a country torn apart by a violent civil war involving several parties that are viciously hostile to Jews, is preposterous. The Torah is part of the proud heritage of Yemenite Jewry and that heritage will live on in the State of Israel,” Agency spokesman Avi Meyer said.
The operation effectively ended the Jewish Agency’s efforts to bring Jewish immigrants to Israel from Yemen. Similar initiatives in recent years have helped bring the last few remaining members of the community to Israel as the country has descended into civil war in recent years.
Approximately 50 Jews now remain in Yemen, with 40 living in Sana’a in a compound adjacent to the American Embassy. Despite the ongoing civil war, they refuse to leave the country.
Saudi Arabia and a number of its Sunni Arab allies launched an intervention on March 26 last year to support President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi after Iran-backed Houthi rebels and their allies seized control of large parts of Yemen including the capital, Sana’a.
The World Health Organization says the conflict has left more than 6,200 dead in Yemen over the last year and the UN has warned of a humanitarian “catastrophe.”
Some 49,000 Yemeni Jews were brought to the nascent State of Israel in Operation Magic Carpet in 1949-50.
Ilan Ben Zion and AFP contributed to this report.