My Christian tourism in Isfahan was an unexpected bonus (Christmas trees!). Whilst looking at pretty churches and cathedrals can become very samey in Europe, there’s something magnetic about seeing them in majority Muslim countries. It’s no doubt because they don’t exist where I live, full stop. Iran on the other hand, has a decent sized Armenian community, and some very old churches. I think it’s the political implications of churches in Muslim countries that interests me – and yet another example of how very different Saudi Arabia is from most of the surrounding countries. So a little unwisely, that was the angle I went for when talking to a man in Vank Cathedral in Jolfa, Isfahan. Incidentally, I believe Jolfa comes from the area lots of Armenians fled from during the holocaust, and were given sanctuary in this part of Isfahan, so it’s named after them.
It’s difficult to tell if people are angry or not when everything’s being translated, but I think he was a little annoyed at my British ignorance. After we’d established that they were indeed Orthodox and not Catholic, I asked the obvious question (to me) about government interference in their religion. I felt I got a disgruntled answer, and I was a little embarrassed in all honesty… He wanted to know why on Earth I’d be asking that question. Couldn’t I see how open the church was? Tourists were popping in and out, Muslim and Christian, Iranian and foreign. The wall art was in good condition, and people were marvelling at its detail and colour. The shop sold Christmas items, icons, rosaries and various Christian trinkets. What part of all this makes me think I should ask a question about government interference?
He had a few things to say about Britain and the way we (don’t) educate ourselves. Paraphrased, the Armenians had Christianity before Britain did, but we seem to forget that Jesus wasn’t English. There were a few choice words about the Armenian Holocaust too, when Britain couldn’t help out because, “our boats couldn’t reach them.”
It was refreshing to hear a Christian Iranian so anti-British whilst pro-Iranian at the same time. My stereotype of Iran beforehand led me to believe it would be the staunch Shi’a regime guys that would be like that, which I’m sure they are, but this man’s church was selling Christmas cards. It’s hard to disagree with him when he claims we’re lied to about Iran. I guess it isn’t nice to hear negative propaganda about “those Iranian Muslims” when there’s clearly a safe minority of people who belong to an older version of the same religion most western countries have come out of.
But anyway, I apologised on behalf of the Queen and he laughed reassuring me that history had nothing to do with me. I’ve no idea how I would have been made aware of the situation of Iranian-Armenian Christians if I hadn’t travelled there. As far as I know, the Daily Mail hasn’t ran that story yet.
I took a peek in the shop and without a hint of cheekiness wished the girls there Merry Christmas. It’s remarkable how much I think Saudi culture influences me even when out of the country. I wouldn’t have thought ten years ago that me saying, “Merry Christmas” in public would be a source of amusement.
…Round the corner in the Church of Holy Bethlehem, Gregorian-style music played softly in an old decorated church with evidence of the sun god “Mehr” on the outside walls showing the influence of Persian culture on Christianity in the past…
As a final note, I also went to a Catholic Church in Tehran, which had an Irish priest, on Christmas Eve for their Midnight Mass. I only stayed an hour, but it was filled with Armenians, Iranians and foreigners – mostly with their heads uncovered. They had a musical nativity thing going on, and it was all very…normal…I think that actually broke the stereotype of Iran and Christianity more than Vank Cathedral.