A visit to an Armenian church in Islamic Iran

October 24, 2007

Iran’s Black Church stands near Chaldoran, 650 km (404 miles) northwest of Tehran The rest of the world often forgets that there are Christian churches dotted across the Muslim world and some of those communities date back to the earliest years of the faith. Fredrik Dahl and Reza Derakhshi from our Tehran bureau recently visited a remote medieval outpost of the Armenian Apostolic Church in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Their report says:

The last priest left the Black Church more than half a century ago and now the picture on the wall of a former monk’s cell is of the Islamic Republic’s founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, not Jesus.

But Iran says this medieval Armenian Christian retreat in a mountainous region close to Turkey and Armenia shows it is observing the rights of other faiths.

Read the full story here.

Dahl interviewed Sebouh Sarkissian, the Armenian archbishop of Tehran, for the feature. As a FaithWorld extra, here is the Q&A of their talk:

Armenians make up the largest Christian minority in Iran, their presence dating back to the time of the ancient Persian empire, but their numbers have declined since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Sebouh Sarkissian, Armenian archbishop in Tehran for the past eight years, spoke to Reuters at his office next to the Armenian cathedral in the Iranian capital about the situation for his community in the Islamic Republic.

Archbishop of the Armenian prelacy of Tehran Sebouh Sarkissian, October 2, 2007Q. What do you think of Iran’s application for a medieval Armenian monastery, St Thaddeus Church, also known as the Black Church, to become a United Nations World Heritage site?

A. We have the feeling that the government is taking care of our religious heritage, historical churches and sacred sites … This of course makes us happy.

Q. What would it mean in practical terms?

A. It will be supervised by (an) international body … and it also somehow secures the existence of that church.

Q. So you are well-treated by the authorities?

A. In this manner yes; in keeping, maintaining, the spiritual richness and religious sites of this country.

Q. Any problems facing Armenians in Iran today?

A. Generally speaking, as citizens of this country, we are facing the same difficulties that every Iranian is facing nowadays … The Armenians, since they have been living here for
centuries, they have accommodated themselves to the Iranian lifestyle. Despite having said this, sometimes as a Christian community we face difficulties.

Q. Any examples?

A. Well, for instance, the government has prepared a textbook of religion and they have imposed (a rule) on us to teach that text book… Of course they are not familiar with Christian expressions and mentality … so that is one of the main difficulties.

Q. Do you think this book will be removed?

A. Once when I was talking to the (government) minister I asked him: ‘would you accept … that I prepare a text book on Islam, on the Koran, and ask some other Christians to come and teach it in your schools? Would you accept that?’ He started laughing.

Q. Does your community experience discrimination in Iran?

Tourists visit the Black ChurchA. Not as such … I think it is an innovation from the West, that people are coming and always asking: is there discrimination in this country? I can tell you that I’ve felt
discrimination even in the United states, even in Europe.

Q. Can you drink alcohol, even though it is banned in Iran?

A. Alcoholic drinks are allowed, not officially of course … we use wine during the mass, the worship, and that’s why they somehow allow us to do (it) … but in general the
usage of alcohol is not good. It is not encouraged.

Q. Have many Armenians left Iran since the revolution?

A. The process of migration regarding the Armenian community started even before the revolution … Immigration and migration, it is a phenomenon all over the world … not
anything peculiar to Iran and Iranian society.”

Q. You don’t believe it is a sign they are not well-treated?

A. No, because even Iranians are emigrating from this country, not only Christians, not only Armenians.

Q. Do you see a future for the Armenian community in Iran?

A. Yes, definitely, our existence is rooted in this soil, in this country … I don’t think we are in danger. If we are in danger it means the whole society is in danger.

One comment

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What else can he say but that things are pretty good. Read the Quran and you see that this church’s existence is allowed as a sham. It will not be allowed to grow, to openly teach Christ crucified, baptise new members of the faith. But to exist he MUST say only good about Islam and nothing about Christianity. May the Lord bless him for his faithfulness and courage in staying. He is but a dhimmi in Iran with no rights but what he is given at the behest of Islam and if he says anything negative or to promote Christianity, he is subject to death. Am I wrong?

Posted by David Bell | Report as abusive