By Maryam Dehkordi
October 14, 2020
Religious minorities in the Islamic Republic of Iran are sometimes described as najes, or “impure”. With the state’s blessing, their business premises are often sealed off, they may be blocked from entering higher education, and they are prevented from accessing power structures in the country by not being allowed to stand as elected representatives or work for the government.
Even in the private sector, though, some members of religious minorities report being hampered in their work. A resident of Bandar-e Mahshahr in Khuzestan province, and follower of the Mandaean faith, told IranWire they were regularly harassed by law enforcement in the course of their work as a goldsmith.
Mandaeans follow a gnostic religion that dates back almost 2,000 years and are often referred to as the “People of the Book” in Iran. Just a few thousand now remain after decades of persecution under the Islamic Republic. Mandaeans are not recognized as a religious minority group, cannot register for services under their Mandaean names and cannot attend university if they openly state they are Mandaean.
“Generations of Mandaeans have worked in the gold and silver trade,” the source told IranWire. “We have a unique style of enameling – and a palm and camel motif – that is now world famous. But our businesses, which we started with hard work and capital, are difficult to keep going. We’re constantly attacked and law enforcement officers demand bribes from us.”
In Iran, goldsmiths are often accused of being co-conspirators with gold thieves. Another Mandaean resident of Bandar-e Mahshahr, who asked not to be named, told IranWire: “Police officers come to the market along with known gold thieves, and the thieves introduce Mandaeans as the buyers of their stolen gold.
“However much we insist that our shops have CCTV cameras and they can check the footage, or check our accounting books, they don’t listen. The shop is sealed off and the shopkeeper is taken away.
“This usually happens on the last working day of the week and after office hours. The premises is closed down for a day or two and then it goes bust. Owners are often told that if they don’t want to go to court they should pay a fine then and there.”
According to this citizen, some agents, knowing that Mandaean citizens do not have citizenship rights, force them to pay an effective ransom of several million tomans and release them on the Saturday morning. “In the last two years, this happened so many times that the Mandaean goldsmiths of Mahshahr wrote a letter to the governor of Khuzestan on the issue. We hope it’s being addressed now.”
Another source familiar with the problems told IranWire: “Many Mandaeans try to do their work in silence and under the radar. They try not to draw attention to their business, because if they do it could cause them trouble. They have fewer legal rights than Muslims – even Muslim swindlers and thieves – and if they can’t prove their innocence they’re in big trouble.”
In recent years, many senior officials in Iran have made public pronouncements about the importance of fighting corruption and bribery at all levels of government. Mandaean citizens who have fallen victim to this across Khuzestan are unconvinced by the rhetoric. “I always ask,” one told IranWire, “did this government not come to power on a the promise of eliminating corruption?
“Our business has been running for just a year now and we’ve seen all sorts of things. Asking for a bribe in exchange for the privilege of allowing our business to run, without our having committed any wrongdoing, is just the tip of the iceberg.”
Last February, according to one of the Mandaean sources in Bandar-e Mahshahr, several gold and jewelry shops fell victim to a string of armed robberies. “Both the thieves and the stolen gold from Muslim-owned gold shops were found,” they said, “but the gold from the Mandaean goldsmith was not! Throughout this year he has repeatedly contacted to the police station to escalate the case. There’s no sign of any progression.”