Baha'i News -- Iran's Cautious Non-Muslims
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Iran's Cautious Non-Muslims

Armenians, Jews, Zoroastrians – and the Mullahs

Oswald Iten

By keeping a low profile, the members of most of Iran's religious minorities can practice their faiths. Among them, it is the Jews who must be most careful. Discriminatory regulations concerning "blood money" – that is, compensation payments in cases of violent death – are soon to be lifted.

A grim Khomeini looks down on the Cathedral of St. Sergius in Teheran, seat of Bishop Sebouh Sarkissian, head of the Armenian Orthodox church in Iran. The gigantic mural is in no way connected to his church, says the cleric; it happens to be there because the neighboring high-rise building belongs to the Ministry of Propaganda – but one should draw no false conclusions from the juxtaposition. "Iran is not hell," he insists. "We're in heaven here compared to Saudi Arabia or Kuwait." The prelate emphasizes that his religious community is free enough to operate 23 schools of its own, five kindergartens and 27 charitable organizations. The Armenians are also permitted to follow their own laws governing family and inheritance.

Two Armenians in Parliament

About 80,000 Armenians live in Teheran, and they are served by seven Orthodox churches. Prior to Khomeini's revolution, the Armenian community in the Iranian capital was about twice that size. Bishop Sarkissian regrets the exodus, which he claims is now leveling off. Officially, Iran's Armenian minority numbers 150,000 people. In reality the figure is probably lower, but the bishop has no interest in confirming that fact, since it could endanger the position of one of the two parliamentary seats reserved for the Armenians. The two deputies, members of the reform wing of the Majlis, belong to the officially unregistered Armenian Revolutionary Party.

The two Armenian deputies are on the verge of a breakthrough which they claim to have won not only for the sake of the generally prosperous Armenians, but for all non-Muslim minorities. Though Iran's constitution guarantees the equality of all believers, in practice that is not really the case. The greatest stumbling block is the different standard for so-called blood money, the compensation which must be paid when someone is killed – in an automobile accident, for example. While the blood money for a Muslim victim is generally about 15,000 dollars, the family members of a Christian victim receive only half that, or less (the same is true when the victim is a female, regardless of her religious affiliation). Bishop Sarkissian is optimistic that the law revoking this injustice will be approved, since in his view it would never have gotten as far as it has without the prior approval of the country's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.

Shah Abbas' Armenians

Armenian interviewees in Isfahan would also regard an end to discrimination in compensation payments as an important sign of progress. For many members of the community, their disadvantaged status was one of the reasons for sending family members abroad. After 1979, Armenians could no longer obtain government jobs – though the owner of a souvenir shop near the Armenian cathedral reports that this ban has been broken in a few cases recently. He and many other Armenian merchants are more troubled by the fact that tourism here has declined about 90 percent as a result of the terrorist attacks in the USA.

Isfahan has been the heart of the Armenian presence in Iran since Shah Abbas I had about 100,000 artisans brought here from their Armenian homeland in 1604. The Safavid ruler needed the workers to build his capital with that splendor which the buildings dating from the period still radiate today. Abbas settled the Armenian artisans far off on the other side of the Sayandeh River, in Jolfa. Here, in 1638, they issued the very first book ever printed in the Middle East, according to the proud librarian Minassian, who points to 800 additional volumes which have since been published here in the Armenian language. Isfahan's modern sections have long since grown to surround the old Armenian quarter.

A Liberal Friday Preacher

Isfahan, the inhabitants of which like to think of themselves as progressive and independent, is no easy place for Iran's ruling mullahs. On the grandiose square built by Shah Abbas, two women schoolteachers teach us a sentence in Farsi: "Omidwarim ke mullaha berand" ("We hope the mullahs will go!"). And like a refrain, they call after us laughingly: "Ke berand" ("That they go!"). At the head of this large space at the center of Isfahan, now known as Imam Square, is the Imam Mosque (formerly the Shah Mosque), in which the Friday sermon is delivered each week.

In order to maintain better control of their political messages, Iran's ruling ayatollahs have decreed that the Friday sermon may be delivered only in one single mosque in each city. But Isfahan's Friday preacher, Ayatollah Taheri, has turned out to be not a willing mouthpiece of the conservatives but a reformer. And because he enjoys great prestige as the oldest Friday preacher in the country, the conservatives cannot simply remove him. But the mullahs are spending a huge amount of money to have a gigantic new mosque built across the river, where the Friday sermons are to be delivered in future. In speaking of religious problems, says one follower of the reform-minded ayatollah, it should not be forgotten that many Muslims also found themselves facing difficulties after Khomeini came to power.

The Synagogue on Palestine Square

Isfahan's Palestine Square casts an interesting sidelight on the Middle East crisis. One corner of the square is marked by a mosque named al-Quds, referring to Jerusalem and an independent Palestine. Diagonally across the square sits the David Synagogue, the most important of the city's 20 Jewish houses of worship. The demonstrations against Israeli repression in the occupied territories were held not here, however, but on Imam Square. Iranians appear not to blame the local Jews for the repression of the Palestinians. As one gentleman from the tourist industry explained it, the Iranians are essentially tolerant people and quite capable of distinguishing between the regime's propaganda and the innocence of the local Jewish community, which settled in Isfahan back when King Cyrus liberated the ancient Hebrews in Babylon.

The synagogue stands completely unguarded. An old man with a bushy beard opens the door to us. Inside, a few members of the 1,500-member Jewish community are engaged in reading Scripture. Among them are some young men and children. One young man comments that those who wanted to emigrate to Israel have long since done so. To which a wrinkled old woman adds: "This is our country. We are Iranians!" Her words appear to accord with those of the governor of Isfahan Province, who remarked during an interview: "Life here is much more comfortable than in Israel." But the truth is that all is not pure delight behind the scenes. This was made clear two years ago in Shiraz, when a group of Jews were put on trial for allegedly spying on the nearby Bushehr nuclear station on behalf of Israel. After an appeal, the charges were reduced to "collaboration with Israel," but even that was enough for ten Jews (and two Muslims) to receive prison sentences of up to nine years. The intimidation of Shiraz's Jewish community is still palpable today. The administrator of the Rabbi Zadeh synagogue, the only one of 13 Jewish places of worship to remain open on a daily basis, refuses to comment on the trial without approval from the Ministry of Information. The only remark he lets slip is that the defendants were not guilty.

Local Jewish sources reveal that the four prisoners with the lowest sentences have already been released, and the last of the convicted men will be out in five more years at most. The prisoners are permitted one three-hour visit from their families per month, under the supervision of three guards. About 4,000 Jews live in Shiraz today, and emigration has reportedly increased since the trial. When you ask local Jews directly about their lives, you are likely to receive only the stereotypical reply that they feel comfortable in Iran and are not subjected to any difficulties.

Conversion from Islam Brings Death

Officially, all members of those religions which Islam attests to having a "holy book" are free to practice their faith. In Iran, these include the Zoroastrians, followers of the ancient Persian teachings of Zarathustra, who are also known as Parsis. In some cities, the country's estimated 30,000 Zoroastrians maintain so-called fire temples, in which the sacred fire is never permitted to go out. Visiting a fire temple, we encounter a young Muslim who has developed an affection for the daughter of a Zoroastrian. He assures us that he is merely studying some scriptures of this religion. For an Iranian Muslim, conversion to another faith would bring a death sentence. The only way this young man could marry his lovely Zoroastrian sweetheart is if she were to convert to Islam.

All missionary activity is strictly forbidden in Iran. The religious authorities here react most sensitively to the Bahai, who are regarded as heretics and were horribly persecuted after Khomeini came to power. No one here wants to talk about this. Those Bahai who were born into that faith are reportedly now left in peace. But anyone openly converting to that religion – or any other except Islam – will feel the full retributive weight of the Sharia, Muslim religious law.

May 30, 2002 / First published in German, May 25, 2002


©Copyright 2002, Neue Zürcher Zeitung AG

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