SANAA, Yemen (AP) — A member of Yemen’s Jewish minority has been detained over allegations he helped smuggle an 800-year-old scroll out of the country to Israel, Yemeni officials said Tuesday, weeks after some of Yemen’s last remaining Jews arrived in Israel following a clandestine operation.
Yahia Youssef Yaish was being interrogated by the intelligence service run by Shiite Houthi rebels, who control the country’s capital, Sanaa, the officials said.
It wasn’t immediately clear when exactly Yaish was arrested as the officials only said he was taken from his house last week. Three airport employees were also detained, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Yemeni intellectuals issued a statement demanding Yaish’s release and describing the allegations against him as “fabricated.”
In Israel, Avi Mayer, the spokesman for the Jewish Agency, confirmed the Torah scroll was smuggled out of Yemen with a rabbi and 18 Yemeni Jews who left to Israel last month. The rabbi, Saliman Dahari, said the Torah scroll he brought was handed down over the generations.
“The notion that the Torah should have remained in a country torn apart by a violent civil war, several of the parties to which are openly anti-Semitic, is preposterous,” said Mayer. “The Torah served members of the Raydah Jewish community for centuries and will continue to do so in Israel, where the last remnants of that community now live,” he added.
On Yaish, he said the agency is aware of the reports of his detention and is monitoring the situation.
Since 1949, some 50,000 Jews have arrived to Israel from Yemen and have grown to become an integral part of Israeli society. Mayer said that there is an estimated number of 50 Jews remaining in Yemen, where they dwell in a closed compound next to the U.S. Embassy.
They are often subject to attacks by both Sunni and Shiite Muslim militants, he added.
The conflict in Yemen has been ripped the country apart. The rebel Houthis overran Sanaa in September 2014, forcing the internationally-recognized government into exile in Saudi Arabia. Since last year, the Saudis have led a coalition of mostly Sunni Arab countries in an intensive air campaign against the Houthis.
Mansour Hayel, who was among those who signed the petition, said he believed the Houthis “never cared about manuscripts” and that Yaish “was only taken as a scapegoat after the Houthis felt embarrassed when Israelis showed the scroll on TV.”
Hayel said that over the years, Houthis destroyed ancient manuscripts and scrolls when they forced the Jewish community in the northern city of Saada — a Houthi stronghold— to flee to Sanaa.