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Joyous welcome for Iranian Jews fleeing to Israel

About 40 arrived from a homeland they fear is growing less tolerant. Many reunited with family.

TEL AVIV, Israel - Greeted by joyous relatives and a crowd of reporters, about 40 Iranian Jews landed in Israel yesterday, leaving behind their lives in the Islamic republic for homes in the Jewish state.

Relatives screamed in delight and threw candy at the newcomers as they emerged into the airport's reception hall after a long bureaucratic procedure. No details about their route from Iran were given.

"I feel so good," said Yosef, 16, who arrived with his parents, his brother and a sister. Greeting them were his grandparents, who had gone to Israel six years ago.

"I just saw all of my family. You can't put that into words," said Yosef, who declined to give his family name to protect relatives in Iran.

The arrivals were sponsored by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, a charity that funnels millions of dollars from evangelical donors each year.

Evangelical backers of Israel say they are following a biblical prophecy that creation of a Jewish state here is a step toward the Messianic Age. Some Israeli critics say the backers' ultimate goal is to convert Jews to Christianity; the evangelicals deny that.

The fellowship's founder, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, said by telephone from Chicago that the immigrants received $10,000 each because they had left behind all their possessions and "start in Israel with nothing," though many said at the airport that they were joining family already here.

Yosef's brother, Michael, 15, said he "was scared in Iran as a Jew." No comment was available yesterday from the Iranian government.

Iran's Jewish community of about 25,000 is protected by Iran's constitution and remains the largest in the Muslim Middle East. Synagogues and Jewish schools and stores operate openly in Tehran, but Jews also report discrimination and increasing concerns about President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's hostility toward Israel.

Ahmadinejad has repeatedly called for Israel's destruction. Israel also believes that Iran is still trying to build a nuclear bomb.

About 200 Iranian Jews arrived in Israel this year, more than in any year since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, said Michael Jankelowitz, spokesman for the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency, which deals with immigration.

"I'm in heaven," gushed Avraham Dayan, 63, waiting for his son, daughter-in-law and grandson. He said he had not seen his son, now 38, in 11 years, missing his son's wedding and the birth of his grandson.

The arrivals led the evening newscast of Israel's Channel 2. TV pictures broadcast locally did not show the newcomers' faces, reflecting concern that publicity could lead to harm for Jews still in Iran.

Meir Javedanfar, an Israeli analyst whose family emigrated from Iran in the 1980s, said Jews were generally free to practice their religion inside Iran but were increasingly concerned about the intensity of attacks on Israel by the Iranian press, which they view as bordering on anti-Semitism. He said Iranian Jews were in a critical situation because of Ahmadinejad's attitude.