The Leader-Post (Regina, Saskatchewan)
January 5, 2008 Saturday
Final Edition



Black Church held as symbol of tolerance

by Fredrik Dahl and Reza Derakhshi, Reuters

QARA KELISA, Iran


QARA KELISA, Iran -- The last priest left the Black Church more than
half a century ago and now the picture on the wall of a former monk's
cell is of the Islamic Republic's founder Ayatollah Ruhollah
Khomeini, not Jesus.

But Iran says this medieval Armenian Christian retreat in a
mountainous region close to Turkey and Armenia shows it 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 recognized as a United Nations World Heritage site, to
join the Persepolis and other archeological treasures.

"This is a symbol of the co-existence of different religions and
ethnicities," said senior conservationist Khosro Farri of Iran's
Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization.

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 several Armenians in this northwest region said they were treated
like any other Iranian.

"I don't have any problems living here," said Aldagesh Malik, an
elderly Armenian man in the village of Gardabad, a three-hour drive
south of the church.

His village 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.

Sitting and chatting with a Muslim neighbour, Malik said: "Your
religion doesn't make any difference. We are all friends."

Located in tawny hills, 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.

Armenians -- members of an ancient independent branch of Christianity
-- believe one of Jesus' apostles, St Jude, was martyred and then
buried where the church now stands. Its distinctive black-and-white
striped tower is visible from afar.

Many of those who lived here fled the turbulent border region in the
First World War, 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.

Officially named St 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 Sebouh Sarkissian, the Armenian archbishop in Tehran, dismissed
such allegations as an "innovation from the West."

"People are coming and always asking: Is there discrimination in this
country?" said the black-robed prelate in his office next to the
20th-century Armenian cathedral in Iran's capital. "I can tell you
that I've felt discrimination even in the United States, even in
Europe."

Armenians are recognized 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, according to the official IRNA news
agency.

Visiting from a nearby town, Kheyrollah Mahmoudi said his grandmother
and other Armenians fleeing Turkey hid there nine decades ago. She
later married a Muslim man in Iran.

"They were all afraid they would be killed," Mahmoudi said. "It is
like a movie in front of my eyes."

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress