Lebanese journalist Ali Hashem, chief correspondent for the Al Mayadeen news network and frequent contributor to Al-Monitor, writes this week in the Beirut-based newspaper As-Safir about Iran’s minority Christian community. Entitled “Christians in Iran: Safest in the Region,” and (roughly) translated into English by Zeina Shayya, the short article focuses primarily on Armenians in Tehran, rather than the often reported on Christian community (and gorgeous Vank Cathedral) in Esfahan:
The sweet sound of bells echoes in Tehran at St. Sarkis Church (or Sarkisian Church) that was named after the family that began its construction in the mid-sixties of the last century, and raised the cross over it in 1970.
A cross in the heart of Tehran, no need to wonder; the Islamic Republic of Iran has more than 600 churches in different cities, 37 of them are distributed to different regions in the capital Tehran. Also in Tehran, Christians practice their religious rites, while the youth committees organize celebrations and religious events.
The bishop of Armenians in Tehran and northern Iran, Sbouh Sarkisian, says that the relationship between Iran, the state and the Christians, and specifically the Armenians, a sect practised by the majority of Christians in the country, is a regular relationship between citizens and their state: “We are Iranian citizens in the first place and we enjoy all our rights like any other citizen, in addition to our special rights and laws of the church,” [he says.]
In Nejat Ellahi Street, which was known as Villa Street before the Islamic revolution, lies St. Sarkis Church, the church from where Archbishop Sarkissian leads his parish. His congregation, he asserts is “comfortable in Iran more than anywhere else in the region” adding that “at this stage, Iran is one of the countries where Christians feel the safest in the area where the state respects particularly Christians and Armenians. We have been here in this country for thousands of years, we have our civilization and we have blended with the Iranian society culturally, socially and even militarily, while maintaining our privacy and our religious identity.”
During the Iran–Iraq War, more than 200 soldiers of the Armenian community in the ranks of the Iranian army were killed, their memory was immortalized on Merdmad Street in north Tehran with a huge mural containing portraits of some of them. For Iran, those men are martyrs of “Sacred Defense for the Islamic Republic.” Christian Iranians did not isolate themselves from the state, as is the case in a number of other countries, even though the regime is Islamic.
The Iranian bishop says, “There is no paradise on Earth. In all countries of the world, citizens suffer from social, educational and other problems, and when I say that our relationship with the state is very good and that it takes good care of us, this does not mean that we do not have problems or that we live in paradise, but we prefer to solve these problems between us and discuss them within closed rooms.”
According to official statistics, about a quarter of a million Christians live in Iran, mostly Armenians, with Assyrians as the second largest demographic. They have three representatives in the Islamic Consultative Assembly [majlis, or the Iranian parliament] whom they elect themselves. Iranian Christians live mainly in the cities, such as Tehran, which is home to nearly half of all Iranian Christians. In Tehran, there are many churches representing different Christian sects. The Armenian community even has a private club named “Ararat,” located on Ararat Street, where non-religious ceremonies are held.
Over in Israel, however, Christian Palestinians are routinely discriminated against and, in Palestine, are subject to overwhelming oppression due to the occupation. Nevertheless, the vast majority of the Christian right in the United States has continued to steadfastly support the Zionist policies of the Israeli government.
In a new development, a recent BuzzFeed article reveals, a growing movement is seeking to challenge the Evangelical community from within when it comes to blindly backing Israel. “Figures with deep roots in America’s religious right have launched a quiet effort aimed at pushing evangelical Christians away from decades of growing loyalty to Israel and toward increased solidarity with the Palestinians,” reports McKay Coppins. He continues:
The campaign by a coalition of religious leaders, international nonprofits, and activists has taken place in recent years largely behind the scenes and away from the prying eyes of the political press — and it’s being driven by a generation of Evangelicals alienated by the way their faith was yoked to Republican foreign policy during the Bush years. Now, organizations like the Telos Group and the large Christian nonprofit World Vision have joined a small army of ministers and Christian opinion-makers working to reorient Evangelicals’ stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — producing documentaries about the plight of Palestinian Christians, providing theological rationale for a more “balanced” view of the issue, and taking Evangelicals on trips to the Middle East.
The goal is to soften the bulletproof political alliance between American Evangelicals and Israel — forged over decades of successful courtship by Israeli governments and pro-Israel forces in the U.S. — and to make room on the religious right for Palestinian sympathies. If the movement is successful, it would represent a move toward mainline, politically liberal Christian denominations that have long been aligned with the Palestinian cause. The Presbyterian Church USA, for instance, briefly adopted a policy of divesting from some companies doing business in Israel.
The campaign has alarmed America’s most committed Christian supporters of Israel, who acknowledge their rivals’ message is gaining momentum within the church.
Read the entire article here.