ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Iran’s Armenian Christians

Always a minority, Iran’s Armenian Christians work to maintain their identity.

The streets, once swarming with itinerant vendors selling dusty wares from the backs of donkeys, are now paved and quiet. Goods are tastefully displayed behind the glass windows of shops. Stone cubes positioned by the doors of shuttered houses, the gathering spots where veiled ladies of the household spent their days gossiping, now stand idle. Television has replaced conversation and people-watching. Despite these modern intrusions, however, New Julfa remains a charming community. But what makes this neighborhood in the central Iranian city of Isfahan unique is the presence of more than 8,000 Armenian Apostolic Christians.

Twelve majestic churches, each built in the 17th century, reflect the prestige, wealth and age of this community. But in the last 50 years – especially following Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979 – a significant portion of this nation’s traditionally urban Armenian Christian population has left for Armenia or the West. Today, only 150,000 Armenian Christians (Apostolic, Catholic and Evangelical), 30,000 Assyrians, 24,000 Catholics (Chaldean and Latin) and a handful of Orthodox Christians remain.

Christians have always been a minority in the land of the Persians (the Persian Empire was renamed Iran in 1935). By the end of the third century Christianity had gained a firm foothold, especially among the Aramaic-speaking minority, however after Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire the Persian Church suffered wave after wave of persecution. Since Rome and Persia were enemies Christians were considered a threat to the Persian state. Severed from ecclesial and Christological developments in Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople and Rome, the Church of Persia developed a distinct ecclesial identity and adopted the Christology of the Assyrians, which separated her from the West.

The seventh-century Arab invaders established Islam throughout the Middle East. In Iran, Islam ended the 1,000-year hegemony of Persia’s Zoroastrians. But the Assyrian Church of the East grew in size and scope. Ironically these Christians were protected from their Byzantine coreligionists by their Muslim lords. Up until the 13th century, the Assyrians sent missionaries to India, Mongolia, Tibet and China.

Since the early 17th century the Armenians have made up the majority of Iran’s Christian population. During the Persian-Ottoman wars (17th century), the Persian king, Shah Abbas I, moved more than 300,000 Armenians from their home in Julfa (now located in Azerbaijan) to the Shah’s capital of Isfahan in central Iran.

Recognizing the commercial and linguistic abilities of his Armenian subjects, Shah Abbas granted them a monopoly in the silk trade, the primary source of revenue for the Persian Court. The Armenian community’s mastery of the trade opened Persia to the markets of Europe, providing the country with much-needed income. Within a short span of time, the Armenian community transformed New Julfa into a lovely city, where the Christian population lived in harmony with their Muslim neighbors. New Julfa boasted more than two dozen churches as well as schools, fashionable homes, orphanages and homes for the elderly. In 1636 the Armenian community purchased a printing press, making New Julfa the first city in the Middle East to possess one.

Like all urban centers, New Julfa is a city in flux. An area once reserved for Armenians has become a desirable neighborhood for many Muslims. Nevertheless more than 8,000 Armenians live in New Julfa; an additional 3,000 Armenians live in Shahin-shahr, a city about 18 miles from Isfahan.

Gradually however the majority of New Julfa’s Armenian community has moved to Teheran, which was established as Persia’s capital in 1788. Between 1945 and 1960, many Armenians returned to their motherland. Following the country’s Islamic Revolution in 1979, many more fled abroad.

Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians were officially recognized as “religious minorities” in the constitution of 1906. A 1928 law granted representation for each minority in the empire’s parliament. And in 1943 these minorities obtained the right to administer their own community affairs, e.g., marriage and divorce, wills and inheritance, and adoption of children. The Islamic Republic has recognized these statutes, but all communities, Shi’ite and non-Shi’ite, must adhere to certain Islamic laws: all cultural clubs and schools are subject to surveillance visits; it is forbidden to consume alcoholic beverages, dance and gamble; women must refrain from using cosmetics and they must cover their hair.

Satellite dishes, carefully hidden behind boxes or low walls, compete with television antennas on the rooftops of many of the new buildings – it is forbidden to install and use such equipment for fear of Western influences.

Most Christians belong to benevolent societies, cultural associations and sporting clubs “where the community members can meet and perpetuate the Christian and Armenian spirit,” said the director of one large Armenian Club in Teheran.

Of the more than 24 Armenian schools that once supervised the education of its children, only 13 have managed to retain their Armenian headmasters. The other academic leaders have been replaced by Muslims who maintain control of the curriculum. Language and religion are now limited to a few hours a week and boys and girls are separated in all schools.

Iran’s non-Muslim population is not forbidden to trade and maintain shops. But all religious minorities must display a sign in their shops that reads, “Aghaliat Mazhabi,” or “religious minority.” Hence the potential customer has a choice, to buy or not to buy from a non-Muslim.

“Even though Christians are given certain ‘privileges,’” said a Western diplomat living in Iran, there is a somewhat suffocating atmosphere…[Christians] have to be vigilant in order to preserve their prerogatives. Otherwise the slightest error may result in grave consequences.”

Clearly life in the Islamic Republic of Iran is not uncomplicated for those Armenian Christians who seek to maintain their identity in this Muslim environment.

Armineh Johannes is a photojournalist based in Paris, France.

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