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Thursday, 6 January, 2000, 20:56 GMT
Marking the millennium in Islamic Iran

Shiraz, Iran Armenians enjoy a relationship of trust with the Muslim community

By Jim Muir in Isfahan

The Muslim majority in the Islamic Republic of Iran is not celebrating the millennium. But the country's Christian are - though in a low-key manner this year because it coincides with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the commemoration of the martyrdom of the Shi'a Imam Ali.

Orthodox leaders Leaders of the world's Orthodox churches celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem

Small numbers of Catholics, Assyrians and even a few Anglicans live in Iran but most of the country's Christian minority is made up of orthodox Armenians.

They first embraced Christianity 1,700 years ago, and they are continuing to survive in difficult times.

The ancient sounds of the Armenian Christian liturgy echo around the walls of a 17th Century church in Isfahan in the very heart of the Islamic republic.

Iran's historic capital is a place of special significance for Armenians.

Four hundred years ago, it was the centre of their world as they flourished and enjoyed a golden era under the Iranian Shah, Abbas.

Since then, they have somehow survived four centuries of turmoil and upheavals.

Looked on as brothers

That clearly would not have been possible if they had not enjoyed a relationship of trust and mutual respect with the Muslim majority around them.

The community is deeply rooted in the region, as their prelate, Gorun Babian, says.

"In Isfahan, the Armenian community has been accepted by the local population and they looked upon us as brothers, as part of the Islamic Asian culture and history," he says.

"So we never feel ourselves here as foreigners. We're very proud of this very friendly relationship and mutual respect and love."

Thousands of tourists from around the world come to marvel at the wonderful painted walls - depicting the new and old testament - and soaring vaults of the Armenian Cathedral of All Saviours.

There is an Armenian museum, too, commemorating ancient glories.

In recent times, the two decades of the Islamic republic have been hard ones for everyone.

But as psychiatrist, Levon Davidian, points out, the orthodox Armenians - much the biggest of the Christian sects in Iran - are not doing so badly.

"We feel ourselves as Iranians and we live here as Iranians. We have got almost 10,000 pupils attending more than 20 schools, which are purely Armenian schools," he says.

"We have churches, and complete freedom for practising Christianity, for teaching our language, our culture."

Young leave Iran

But living as a tolerated religious minority certainly is not problem-free.

In practical matters, the strict Islamic dress code is not to everybody's taste.

The national day of rest is Friday, making Sunday worship a problem for people with jobs, like Corina Davidian, who I met in a Tehran church.

"In Iran, because we work on Sunday, it is difficult for young people come here, but they do try," she says.

"I think everybody wants to pray - they want religious ceremonies."

But there is more to life than prayer. Basketball is one of the many sports and activities available at the Ararat club in Tehran, one of numerous Armenian social and sporting facilities.

Yet many young Armenians like these are trying hard to leave Iran.

There is a steady haemorrhage, which has probably reduced the community to less than half the 300,000 souls it counted at the time of the Islamic revolution.

At a school concert at an Armenian social centre in Isfahan, Archbishop Babian watched proudly over children whose parents and perhaps grandparents, too, he married during his 22 years as prelate.

Nobody is working harder than him to keep the community together. His fears are not about the rigours of the orient, but the corrosive attractions of the Western world.

"For four hundred years, this small community in an ocean of Islam has survived by maintaining its Christian and Armenian identity, whereas the same thing cannot happen in the West," he says.

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See also:
21 Dec 99 |  African
Can Islam and Christianity live side by side?
30 Dec 99 |  Media reports
Islamic world's view of millennium
28 Dec 99 |  Middle East
Iranians offer kidneys for Rushdie's head
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