Iran's minority Armenian Christians celebrate New Year with fireworks,

The Associated Press
January 1, 2008

ISFAHAN, Iran: Iran's minority Christians celebrated the New Year on
Tuesday by converging on churches at midday to light candles and pray
for a prosperous year, hours after ushering in 2008 with colorful
midnight fireworks.

In the historic central city of Isfahan, members of Iran's Armenian
Christian community ' which numbers 100,000 among Iran's 70 million
strong population ' gathered at Vank Church to attended a service led
by archbishop Babken Charian.

Earlier, at midnight Monday, they had also gathered outside the same
church to set off fireworks within the church compound.

Armenian Christians ' who in Iran are predominantly Gregorian, a branch
of the Christian Orthodox ' "usually hold church meetings on the first
day of January in Iran to celebrate the New Year and pray for
prosperity, justice and peace throughout the world," church official
Yerevan Hosepian said.

Families happily snapped group photos next to well-decorated Christmas
trees and a statute of Santa Claus set up in Vank's large compound.

Many embraced each other and exchanged kisses. Women appeared without
the traditional headscarves, while young men and women mingled freely,
holding hands.

Iran's Islamic laws require women to wear the headscarf in public and
ban any physical contacts between men and women who are not relatives,
but the country's religious minorities are free to take off the veil
and mix inside their own clubs and churches.

Despite their small numbers and the country's hard-line Islamic
government, Christians are free to practice their religion, including
celebrating Christmas and New Year's. However, Christian communities
are prohibited from having their priests and bishops appear in public
in Tehran to preach Christianity.

Inside the Isfahan church, archbishop Charian held Mass and recited
from the Bible. He ended the service offering every member of his
community a piece of bread dipped in wine ' the Armenian Christians'
holy communion.

A crowd of more than 500 showed up at Vank Church, fully decorated with
oil paintings and elaborate engravings in Persian, Armenian and
European style. The paintings depicted themes from both the Old and New

"Today's celebration speaks more than words to prove that we freely
practice our religion," said Aspit Simon, one of the worshippers
attending the service at Vank.

In Isfahan alone, there are 13 Armenian Christian churches.

Apart from Armenians, which comprise most of Iran's Christians, there
is also a sprinkling of Protestants, Assyrians, Catholics and other
Orthodox denominations. Five seats out of 290 in the Majlis, or
parliament, go to recognized religious minorities, including
Christians, Zoroastrians and Jews.

Over the past week, Christians were out in large numbers, buying
Christmas trees and decorations for the holidays. Iran Armenian
Christians celebrate Christmas on Jan. 6, which they consider the
correct date of Jesus' birth.

Around the world, Christmas Day is predominantly celebrated on Dec. 25,
with Christmas Eve falling on Dec. 24, according to the modern,
Gregorian calendar implemented by a Catholic Pope. The majority of
Eastern Orthodox churches, however, celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7,
according to the old, Julian Calendar.