Evangelical Christians in the US have helped convince dozens of Iranian Jews to move to Israel in recent months, offering cash incentives and claiming that Iran's tiny Jewish community is in grave danger.
The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, a charity that funnels millions of dollars in evangelical donations to Israel every year, is promising $10,000 to every Iranian Jew who comes to Israel, said the group's director, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein.
The project is another example of the alliance between the Jewish state and evangelical American Christians, many of whom see the existence of Israel and the return of Jews to the Holy Land as a realization of biblical prophesy that will culminate with Christ's Second Coming.
But an Iran expert said the money would not be enough to draw Iranian Jews, who generally do not perceive themselves to be in great danger in the Islamic republic.
About 25,000 Jews are left in Iran — an overwhelmingly Muslim nation of 65 million — the remnants of a community with origins dating to biblical times. Most Iranian Jews left for Israel or the US over the last 50 years.
Still, Iran's Jewish community is the largest in the Middle East outside Israel, and Iranian Jews have some legal protections. But Israel and Iran are staunch enemies and do not have diplomatic relations.
Eckstein argued that calls by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for Israel's elimination, coupled with Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program, represent danger.
"Is this not similar to the situation in Nazi Germany in the late '30s, where they (Jews) also felt they could weather the storm?" he asked. Instead, 6 million were killed in the Holocaust, which Ahmadinejad has called a "myth."
Eckstein said his group has helped bring 82 Jews to Israel from Iran since the project began this year, and hopes to bring 60 more by year's end.
The charity, based in Jerusalem and Chicago, has raised $1.4 million for the project, Eckstein said. The IFCJ initially offered $5,000 per immigrant, but doubled the amount when response was lower than expected, he said. Immigrants also receive government aid upon arriving in Israel.
One of the recent arrivals, a 31-year-old widow with three children, said she was not in danger in Iran but was concerned for her children's future.
"At the end of the day, this is the place for the Jewish people," she said, referring to Israel. She is living in the southern port city of Ashdod. Though she claimed to have felt safe in her hometown of Isfahan, she asked that her name be withheld to protect family remaining in Iran.
The grant from the IFCJ was what enabled her to come to Israel, she said. Most Jews in Iran have heard about the grant through word-of-mouth and Israel Radio's broadcasts in Farsi, she said.
Iranian government officials would not comment on the new project.
Iran's Jewish community is technically protected by the Islamic Republic's constitution, and has one representative in a 290-seat parliament.
In a speech at Columbia University in New York last month, the Iranian president insisted that Iranians "are friends of the Jewish people. There are many Jews in Iran living peacefully with security."
Nonetheless, the Jewish community has led an uneasy existence under Iran's Islamic government.
In 2000, Iranian authorities arrested 10 Jews, convicted them of spying for Israel and sentenced them to prison terms ranging from four to 13 years. An appeals court later reduced their sentences under international pressure and eventually freed them.
"Generally, Jews are free to practice Judaism inside Iran," said Meir Javedanfar, an Israeli analyst whose family emigrated from Iran in the 1980s. Iranian Jews, however, are increasingly concerned about the intensity of attacks on Israel by the Iranian press, which they view as bordering on anti-Semitism, he said.
No mass exodus
Such attacks have not led to a mass exodus from Iran, because the majority of Iranians are hospitable to the Jews and most Jews in Iran are economically comfortable, Javedanfar said. However, he noted, "the level of concern has increased" because of Ahmadinejad's statements.
This is not the first time evangelical Christians have taken part in bringing people to Israel. Eckstein's charity also played a role in funding the immigration to Israel of 7,000 members of the Bnei Menashe, a group in India claiming descent from one of the Biblical "lost tribes" of the Jews.
The charity's evangelical donors, who tend to have hard-line political views, see encouraging Jewish immigration as a way of strengthening the country in the face of Arab threats.
The IFCJ is one of the most prominent examples of Israel's alliance with evangelical Christians, who have become among the country's most generous donors and most enthusiastic political supporters.
The ties have been welcomed by many Israelis but criticized by others. Some Israelis believe the country should not align itself with a group seen as an extreme element of American society, while others have charged that the evangelicals' goal is ultimately to convert Jews to Christianity, a charge the evangelicals deny.