Santa Claus is com­ing to Tehran

Kuwait Times - - FRONT PAGE -

Tehran might not seem like the most ob­vi­ous pit­stop for Santa Claus, but Ira­ni­ans love the chintzy side of Christ­mas and it is also one of the safest places in the Mid­dle East for Chris­tians. The past month has seen shop­pers flock­ing to the Ar­me­nian dis­trict of So­mayeh - the big­gest Chris­tian area in the city - to pick up fake trees, and stock up on baubles, rein­deer toys and plas­tic snow­men. “It’s re­ally in­ter­est­ing and at­trac­tive for us,” said Nilo­u­far, a Mus­lim woman in her thir­ties who was out shop­ping with her hus­band on Christ­mas Eve. “I love the dec­o­ra­tions, the tree. We see it as show­ing a kind of re­spect for other be­liefs. And of course I like all the choco­lates!”

Shop­pers line up for self­ies with one of sev­eral San­tas sta­tioned out­side stores on the main drag. One Fa­ther Christ­mas, full of the fes­tive spirit, breaks into an im­promptu dance to a pop­u­lar Ira­nian pop song play­ing out­side a food stall. Hamed Davood­ian owns a gro­cery store on the street, and says the com­mu­nity never faces any trou­ble from the au­thor­i­ties. “Why should we? (Ar­me­ni­ans) have been here for 400 years. They are great to us,” he said, adding proudly that Chris­tians fought along­side their fel­low Ira­ni­ans dur­ing the bru­tal war with Iraq in the 1980s. “There were 30 to 35 mar­tyrs from our neigh­bor­hood,” he said.

Thou­sands of Chris­tians have em­i­grated to the United States and else­where since the Is­lamic revolution in 1979, leav­ing only 120,000 Chris­tians ac­cord­ing to the last of­fi­cial count. Most are Ar­me­nian - who are Or­tho­dox Chris­tian - along with a few thou­sand Assyr­ian Catholics. De­spite the ex­o­dus, Chris­tians are of­fi­cially rec­og­nized and pro­tected - along with Jews and Zoroas­tri­ans un­der laws in­tro­duced by the revolution’s founder Ay­a­tol­lah Ruhol­lah Khome­ini.

There are lim­i­ta­tions. Con­vert­ing Mus­lims is il­le­gal, which leads au­thor­i­ties to crack down on Per­sian-lan­guage Bi­bles. Ser­vices must be car­ried out in the orig­i­nal lan­guage of the eth­nic group. Hu­man Rights Watch says Per­sian-speak­ing con­verts face per­se­cu­tion. But there are none of those con­cerns at St Joseph’s Catholic Church in down­town Tehran on Christ­mas Eve, where it is stand­ing-room only for the mid­night mass, de­liv­ered in the Assyr­ian lan­guage.

Arch­bishop Ramzi Gar­mou tells AFP that Chris­tian­ity in the re­gion dates back to the sec­ond cen­tury when St Thomas passed through on his way to In­dia. Hav­ing once num­bered in the tens of mil­lions, the Chris­tian com­mu­nity is now tiny, and Gar­mou says he nor­mally sees only a few dozen for Sun­day mass - not least be­cause it’s a work­ing day in Iran and traf­fic is hor­ren­dous. “But I’ve al­ways said that the strength of the church is not in the num­ber of its fol­low­ers but the faith they show in their daily lives,” he said.

And he is grate­ful that Iran is such an oa­sis of peace in a re­gion be­set by war, and in which Chris­tians face mount­ing per­se­cu­tion. “Thanks to God, we re­ally live in peace and se­cu­rity, but our neigh­bors live in an­guish and vi­o­lence. We pray for them tonight,” he said. — AFP

TEHRAN: An Ira­nian man takes a pic­ture of Christ­mas dec­o­ra­tions out­side a shop in the cap­i­tal on Christ­mas Eve. — AFP

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