By Mohammed Alragawi
ISTANBUL (AA) – The war and internal strife that has ravaged the Yemen over past two decades have also brought challenges to the existence of the country’s microscopic religious minorities.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency on eve of the World Religion Day, which is being observed on Sunday, Yahya al-Tawili, 57, a Yemeni Jewish father of five children, recalled the good old days and the freedom his community enjoyed in the country in the past.
“We had a temple in al-Mahwit governorate (north), where we practiced our religious rituals freely. We used to live with Muslims and visit each other,” he said.
Besides Jews, Yemen hosted a small number of Christians, Hindus, and Bahais.
According to the US Library of Congress figures collected in 2008, the number of Christians in Yemen was 3,000 and Jews 400 in a total 28 million population.
Yemen has been facing violence and instability since 2014, when Iran-aligned Houthi rebels captured much of the country, including the capital Sanaa.
“Even though I left Yemen in 1975 and immigrated to Israel, I always loved Yemen. Some returned from Israel to Yemen and preferred to stay there. But the Houthis ruined everything we used to enjoy,” said Tawili.
He now lives in Tel Aviv after leaving the country voluntarily in 1975 under secret Israel's operation of “Magic Carpet” to bring the Yemeni Jewish community to Israel.
To show his love to Yemen, he has named one of his daughters after the name of the country's capital Sanaa, and named his son Qahtan, after the name of an ancient Yemeni king.
“I have visited many countries including Europe, but I always wish to return to Yemen and live there for the rest of my life,” he said.
- Challenges to freedom of religion
According to The Times of Israel newspaper, 13 Yemeni Jews were brought to Egypt in March 2021 from Yemen in a deal with Houthis that ruled their areas, shrinking the number of Jews remaining in Yemen to only six people, including one in Houthi prisons.
Tawfiq al-Humeidi, head of SAM Rights and Liberties – a Geneva-based non-profit group of human rights defenders and academics - said there is a “huge and clear difference” between the situation of freedom of religion before and after the Houthis’ takeover.
“The Houthis, before taking control of the capital Sanaa, set a bad example in Saada town (their headquarter), where they expelled the Jews and the Salafis during the period from mid-2004 to 2014,” he said.
Further, he added that in the capital Sanaa, they incited and arrested the Bahais, seized their properties, and sentenced their leaders to death.
Humeidi said while Jews were forced to leave the country, the Houthis gave Ibadi a minority choice between "death in prisons or forcible deportation".
Levi Salem Marhabi, a Yemeni Jewish, was arrested in 2016 by Houthi intelligence forces after allegedly smuggling a rare deerskin Torah scroll out of Yemen to Israel, along with 17 members of the Jewish community.
The Houthis said the scroll, believed to be at least 500 years old, was a national artifact.
- Targeting Muslim sects
The Houthis have not only targeted the minority groups but other Muslim sects as well. The SAM Rights and Liberties has documented more than 1,199 religion-related rights violations including looting of 39 mosques, blowing up 174 mosques, and locking up 104 other mosques.
According to the rights group, 210 violations have also been reported targeting imams and preachers, including their arrest, assault, and murder. It further reported 400 violations related to holy Quran schools, 12 of which have been fully destroyed, and 29 schools turned into prisons in Houthi-controlled areas.
Humeidi believed that as long as the Houthis continue to have full control over the mosques, the media, and the schools, the freedom of religion and belief is going to be in the decline.
“In 2022 nothing is going to change unless the war stops, whether with a military or political resolution. Unfortunately, no voice is going to be louder than the weapons that justify the violations,” he said.
World Religion Day was first observed in 1950 aiming to promote understanding and peace between all religions, encourage people to learn about other faiths and their followers, overcome historical differences, and promote harmony.