Armenian Theater Group Lands Iran Officials in Court

(Reuters)–Iran’s judiciary has arrested three cultural officials for organizing a festival containing a brief display of dancing by a male and female theater group from Armenia–the government-run Iran newspaper reported on Thursday.

One hardline newspaper said the festival in the southern city of Ahvaz contained "obscene and repulsive scenes of lewdness and ethical violations in the guise of art."

Physical contact between unrelated men and women in public is outlawed under Iran’s strict Islamic moral code and female dancers and singers are banned from performing in front of men. Social and cultural restrictions have eased somewhat under the government of moderate cleric President Mohammad Khatami. But powerful conservatives deeply opposed to Western cultural influences have stepped up their efforts to stamp out any watering down of Islamic values in recent months.

Festival organizer Alireza Ajang–head of the Culture and Islamic Guidance Ministry in southern Khuzestan province–and two of his colleagues were arrested on charges of "encouraging immorality." The three were later released on $19,500 bail.

Deputy Culture Minister Mohammad Haqshenas said the incident had been blown out of proportion. "The whole festival should not be questioned due to three minutes out of an Armenian group’s 70-minute performance," Iran newspaper quoted him as saying.

But the hard-line Kayhan newspaper–in an editorial–called for the officials to be fired. "The dancing of women in revealing gowns under the light of strong projectors–the mixed dancing of men and women–and other ugly scenes…were just some of the scandalous incidents of that day," the paper said.

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