NEW YORK, Oct. 18 (JTA) – Efforts to mobilize international support for the 13 Iranian Jews arrested in March for spying for Israel continue, advocates in the United States say. European officials have been at the forefront recently of advancing the issue with the Iranian government, which has said it will try the Jews in a revolutionary court in the southern city of Shiraz. Israel denies any connection to the prisoners. On Oct. 14, Iran’s Foreign Ministry reportedly said it was “surprised” that France would raise the issue of the 13 Jews – whose number is believed to include Jewish religious and communal leaders – during a visit by President Mohammad Khatami scheduled for late October. Iran says that several Muslims are being held along with the Jews, as an indication that the arrests were not motivated by religion or ethnicity. Iran is considered by observers to be locked in a struggle between moderates, under Khatami, and religious hard-liners even as it attempting to strengthen its ties to the West. “The case of the Jews is an internal Iranian matter and is the proper business of Iran’s courts,” a Foreign Ministry spokesman was quoted as saying in the Tehran press. The day before, French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine declared that he and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin would broach the subject with Khatami, who will be the first Iranian president to visit France since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. Last month, Austrian President Thomas Klestil raised the case with Iran’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, during what was the first visit to Iran by a European head of state since 1979. Khamenei reportedly told Klestil that the issue was an internal matter and that “if their crime is proved by the court, they will probably be punished.” Espionage is punishable by death in Iran, and 17 Jews have been executed for spying in the past 20 years. Last month, however, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in a meeting with Jewish leaders in New York, reiterated reports that Tehran had given assurances that “in time of peace, Iran does not apply capital punishment.” As diplomatic advocacy continues to free the 13 Jews – or at least to provide for an expeditious, fair and open trial – Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, is stressing that there is no need for funds on behalf of the Jews being held or the Jewish community in Iran. The Presidents Conference, a New York-based umbrella group, has been active on the issue since word of the Jews’ imprisonment in the city of Shiraz emerged in April. Reports of fund-raising activity for the Iranian Jews prompted Hoenlein to warn that any such solicitation “should be considered a sham.” Hoenlein also said such fund raising could endanger the Jewish community in Iran because it “sets up a situation where all Iranian Jews would become potential hostages.”
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