TEL AVIV, Israel - Greeted by joyous relatives and a crowd of reporters, about 40 Iranian Jews landed in Israel on Tuesday, leaving behind their lives in the Islamic Republic for new homes in the Jewish state.
Family members screamed in delight and threw candy at the newcomers as they emerged into the airport reception hall after a long bureaucratic procedure. No details about their route of exit from Iran were given.
"I feel so good," said Yosef, 16. He and his brother Michael arrived with their parents and a sister and were greeted by their grandparents, who went to Israel six years ago.
"I just saw all of my family. You can't put that into words," Yosef said. The brothers declined to give their family name to protect relatives still in Iran.
The new arrivals were sponsored by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, a charity that funnels millions of dollars from evangelical donors each year.
Its founder, Rabbi Yehiel Eckstein, said by telephone from Chicago that each immigrant received $10,000 because they left behind all their possessions and "start in Israel with nothing," although many said at the airport that they were joining family already here.
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 saying their ultimate goal is to convert Jews to Christianity, which the evangelicals deny.
Michael, 15, said he told all his friends where he was going, and they wanted to come along.
"I was scared in Iran as a Jew," he said.
No comment was available Tuesday from the Iranian government.
Iran's Jewish community of about 25,000 people is protected by the country's constitution and remains the largest in the Muslim Middle East. Synagogues, Jewish schools and stores operate openly in the capital but Jews also report discrimination and increasing concerns about hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's hostility toward Israel.
About 200 Iranian Jews arrived in Israel this year, more than any other year since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, said Michael Jankelowitz, spokesman for the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency, which deals with immigration.
Benjamin Yakobi, 16, has lived in Israel seven years. Waiting for his cousin, he said Israel is safer than Iran.
"Here we are all Jewish, and we are not worried that someone will do something," he said.
"I'm in heaven," gushed Avraham Dayan, 63, waiting for his son, daughter-in-law and grandson to arrive. He said he had not seen his 38-year-old son in 11 years, missing his son's wedding and the birth of his grandson.
The newcomers were also mobbed by Israeli reporters and TV camera crews. Their arrival was the top story on the evening newscast of Israel's Channel 2 TV. TV pictures broadcast locally did not show their faces, reflecting concern that publicity could lead to harm of Jews still in Iran.
Meir Javedanfar, an Israeli analyst whose family emigrated from Iran in the 1980s, said Jews are generally free to practice their religion inside Iran, but are increasingly concerned about the intensity of attacks on Israel by the Iranian press, which they view as bordering on anti-Semitism, he said.
But Eckstein warned that the situation facing Iranian Jews is critical because of the attitude of Ahmadinejad, who has repeatedly called for the disappearance of Israel. Despite a recent U.S. intelligence report that found Iran has stopped its nuclear weapons program, Israel believes Iran is still trying to build a nuclear bomb.
"By the time they realize it's not going to blow over, it'll be too late," Eckstein said. All it needs is a U.S. or Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear program for them to come down strong on the local Jewish population."
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.