Iran’s Armenian Christians

text and photos by Armineh Johannes

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The streets, once swarming with itinerant vendors selling dusty wares from the backs of donkeys, are now paved and quiet. Goods are tastefully displayed behind the glass windows of shops. Stone cubes positioned by the doors of shuttered houses, the gathering spots where veiled ladies of the household spent their days gossiping, now stand idle. Television has replaced conversation and people-watching. Despite these modern intrusions, however, New Julfa remains a charming community. But what makes this neighborhood in the central Iranian city of Isfahan unique is the presence of more than 8,000 Armenian Apostolic Christians.

Twelve majestic churches, each built in the 17th century, reflect the prestige, wealth and age of this community. But in the last 50 years – especially following Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979 – a significant portion of this nation’s traditionally urban Armenian Christian population has left for Armenia or the West. Today, only 150,000 Armenian Christians (Apostolic, Catholic and Evangelical), 30,000 Assyrians, 24,000 Catholics (Chaldean and Latin) and a handful of Orthodox Christians remain.

Christians have always been a minority in the land of the Persians (the Persian Empire was renamed Iran in 1935). By the end of the third century Christianity had gained a firm foothold, especially among the Aramaic-speaking minority, however after Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire the Persian Church suffered wave after wave of persecution. Since Rome and Persia were enemies Christians were considered a threat to the Persian state. Severed from ecclesial and Christological developments in Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople and Rome, the Church of Persia developed a distinct ecclesial identity and adopted the Christology of the Assyrians, which separated her from the West.

The seventh-century Arab invaders established Islam throughout the Middle East. In Iran, Islam ended the 1,000-year hegemony of Persia’s Zoroastrians. But the Assyrian Church of the East grew in size and scope. Ironically these Christians were protected from their Byzantine coreligionists by their Muslim lords. Up until the 13th century, the Assyrians sent missionaries to India, Mongolia, Tibet and China.

Since the early 17th century the Armenians have made up the majority of Iran’s Christian population. During the Persian-Ottoman wars (17th century), the Persian king, Shah Abbas I, moved more than 300,000 Armenians from their home in Julfa (now located in Azerbaijan) to the Shah’s capital of Isfahan in central Iran.

Recognizing the commercial and linguistic abilities of his Armenian subjects, Shah Abbas granted them a monopoly in the silk trade, the primary source of revenue for the Persian Court. The Armenian community’s mastery of the trade opened Persia to the markets of Europe, providing the country with much-needed income. Within a short span of time, the Armenian community transformed New Julfa into a lovely city, where the Christian population lived in harmony with their Muslim neighbors. New Julfa boasted more than two dozen churches as well as schools, fashionable homes, orphanages and homes for the elderly. In 1636 the Armenian community purchased a printing press, making New Julfa the first city in the Middle East to possess one.

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Tags: Christianity Armenia Islam Armenian Apostolic Church Iran