- Title: IRAN: Nation holds its Black Church as symbol of tolerance
- Date: 25th October 2007
- Summary: (MER1) TEHRAN, IRAN (RECENT) (REUTERS) SEBOUH SARKISSIAN, THE ARMENIAN ARCHBISHOP IN TEHRAN, SITTING AT HIS DESK WORK OF RELIGIOUS WRITING ON DISPLAY IN OFFICE (SOUNDBITE) (English) SEBOUH SARKISSIAN, THE ARMENIAN ARCHBISHOP IN TEHRAN, SAYING: "The government is taking care of our religious heritage, historical churches and sacred sites of this country."
- Reuters ID: LVADNIFAHUCY3QROXAO80L9ZJOE6
- Duration: 00:00:29
- Topics: Religion
- Story Text: The last priest left the Black Church more than half a century ago and now former monk's cells lie deserted.
But Iran says this medieval Armenian Christian retreat in a mountainous region close to Turkey and Armenia shows the country is observing the rights of other faiths.
It denies charges from Iran's old foe, the United States, that it discriminates against Christian and other religious minorities. The Armenian bishop in Tehran tells Reuters such talk is a Western "innovation".
The Shi'ite Muslim country has applied for Qara Kelisa, or the Black Church, to be recognised as a United Nations World Heritage site, to join the Persepolis and other archaeological treasures.
This is in keeping with Tehran policy regarding Iran's non-Muslim faiths, says Archbishop Sebouh Sarkissian at his Tehran office.
"The government is taking care of our religious heritage, historical churches and sacred sites of this country," Sarkissian said.
The numbers of Christians and Jews in Iran have dwindled since the 1979 Islamic revolution, and people who are members of minorities can be reluctant to speak when asked how the authorities deal with them.
But many Armenian residents of the northwest region in which the Black Church is located said they are treated like any other Iranians.
Villages in the area used to have a majority Armenian population but most have moved in search of a better future in Iran's cities or abroad -- some as far as the United States.
Located in tawny hills near the city of Chaldoran, the Black Church derives its name from the volcanic stone used to build it in the early 14th century after an older one was destroyed by an earthquake.
A light-coloured section of the church was added 200 years ago. Saints slaying dragons and devils and other elaborate motifs are carved in white stone.
Armenians -- members of an ancient independent branch of Christianity -- believe one of Jesus' apostles, Saint Jude, was martyred and then buried where the church now stands. Its distinctive black-and-white striped tower is visible from afar.
"This monument, the Black Church, is one of the oldest churches in Iran, and is distinguished by its historical and religious architecture. It is one of the most famous monuments in our province and our country," said senior conservationist Khosro Farri of Iran's Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organisation.
Many of those who lived here fled the turbulent border region in World War One, when Armenia says 1.5 million ethnic Armenians were killed in a 1915 "genocide" by Ottoman armies in what is now Turkey. Ankara denies any systematic killings.
The church is now mostly empty of Christian worshippers -- two Sunni Muslims from a nearby Kurdish village guard it -- but thousands of Armenians from around the world flock here every summer for festivities to commemorate their patron saint, also known as Thaddeus.
"Each July, Armenians from all over Iran, and some of them are from other countries, come to this church to perform their religious rites," Farri said.
Officially named Saint Thaddeus, the church's focus in Iran's World Heritage bid is, said Farri, a sign of its respect for other religions. He said Armenian pilgrims to the site are "completely free to do what they want".
Amnesty International this year said minorities in Iran were subject to discriminatory laws and practices. It focused on the treatment of Baha'is, seen by Iran's religious leaders as a heretical offshoot of Islam. It also said several evangelical Christians, mostly converts from Islam, were detained in 2006.
The U.S. State Department said in a March report that all religious minorities suffered varying degrees of discrimination in Iran, particularly in employment, education and housing.
But Archbishop Sebouh Sarkissian dismissed the allegations as Western propaganda.
"In Iran, Armenians had been living here for centuries and centuries even before Christ, and they also have identified themselves with Iran and Iranian culture, civilization and life," said the black-robed prelate in his office next to the 20th century Armenian cathedral in Iran's capital.
"Iran, as a country, has had a known history of Christian and Muslim co-existence," he said.
Armenians are recognised in Iranian law. They have two seats assigned to them in the 290-seat parliament and can educate their children in the Armenian language. They can even make and drink alcohol at home -- a practice banned for Muslims.
Nonetheless, the community has continued to shrink since the Islamic revolution almost three decades ago.
Once estimated to have numbered several hundred thousands, it is now only about 100,000 strong, said Sarkissian citing a figure from the official IRNA news agency.
He acknowledged Armenians in Iran could face problems: for example, Armenian schools must use a religious book prepared by the government. But he praised the authorities for seeking World Heritage status for the Black Church and for renovating it.
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