500-year-old Torah scroll brought from Yemen to Israel
500-year-old Torah scroll brought from Yemen to Israel Arielle Di-Porto for The Jewish Agency for Israel

Iranian-backed Shia Islamist rebels have arrested a Yemenite rabbi they accuse of helping smuggle a 500-year-old Torah scroll out of the country to Israel.

The scroll was brought to Israel by 19 Yemenite Jews who made aliyah in March, escaping widespread persecution, death threats and violent attacks, particularly at the hands of Shia Houthi rebels, who are locked in a bloody civil war with Yemen's embattled government.

Some 50 Jews opted to remain in Yemen, however, among them Rabbi Yahia Youssef Yaish, who remained holed up in a protected compound in the capital Sanaa together with most of what remains of the ancient community.

But the Houthis, who seized Sanaa from government forces last year, promptly arrested Rabbi Yaish, on charges of "smuggling an ancient Torah scroll to Israel," and thereby "robbing Yemen's historical assets" according to Yemen News.

Another Yemenite rabbi, Rabbi Saliman Dahari, physically brought the scroll to Israel.

Along with the rabbi, a number of Sanaa airport staff were also arrested on related charges.

The arrests have prompted protests by local activists and intellectuals, who claim the charges are part of a strategy to pressure Yemen's remaining Jews to leave.

The Houthis are avowedly anti-Semitic, a racist sentiment enshrined in their infamous slogan: "God Is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam."

The Yemenite Jewish community is one of the most ancient Diaspora Jewish communities in the world, dating back to the First Temple Period.

But while it was once a large, strong and thriving community - as late as the early twentieth century numbers tens of thousands - Yemen's Jews were ethnically-cleansed in the course of the last century. Persecution, discrimination, kidnappings, forced conversions and attacks by the Muslim majority prompted most Yemenite Jews to emigrate - largely to Israel but also to other parts of the Diaspora - and today only 50 Jews are known to remain in the country.