The Armenians of Isfahan, A Christian minority in land of Mullahs
May 29, 2005 21:48:54 tenu.php?id=3D212

The Armenians of Isfahan, a Christian minority in the land of Mullahs

By Celia CHAUFFOUR in Ispahan
On 24/05/2005
(Translated by Victoria BRYAN)

Isfahan, the New Julfa district. At first glance, nothing appears to
separate these roads from those found in the rest of the former Persian
capital. However, a closer look reveals that it's not domes perched atop
mosques, but Christian crosses balanced jauntily atop churches. Living
on the banks of the Zayandeh Rud river since the 17th century, the
Armenians of Isfahan practise their faith freely. A look at the heart of
a fragile Christian minority on Shiite soil.
Outgoing Special IRAN : 2/10

They are confused. And disappointed. In the last presidential elections
of June 2001, the majority of Isfahan's 8,000 Armenians put their cross
in the box next to the name of Khatami, the reformer. However, the
outgoing president did not keep the election promises that brought him
to power.
The result of this is that in the Armenian community of Isfahan, as
elsewhere in Iran, the level of participation in the presidential
election in June looks set to be low. What has changed? The people want
to believe in the election, but that's something of a challenge.

"In 2001, I chose to protest against the conservatives by voting in
favour of the left. But this time, I won't be voting for either of
them", sighs Manuche, an Armenian originally from Abadan, in the
Khouzestan province. Her words are indicative of the current trend. That
of a rampant lack of interest for Iranian politics.

The owner of a jewellery shop in the New Julfa district, Manuche belongs
to the liberal middle classes, a milieu that is often associated with
the business-oriented Armenian diaspora.
Amongst the Armenians, making jewellery remains a minority activity
compared to the mechanical trade in which they have become masters. With
the exception of some large fortunes, the Armenian community of Isfahan
could be described as middle-class, enjoying a more comfortable standard
of living than the majority of Muslim Iranians.

Well-accustomed to talks of reform that they know do not have a future,
the Armenians of Iran, no matter their social background, steer clear of
national politics. It is only community issues that hold an interest for
them and to such an extent that New Julfa places more importance on
legislative rather than executive power.
Robert Belgarian, a representative in the Armenian parliament in
southern Iran, is one of the two Armenian MPs elected to the Majlis (the
Iranian parliament) in the last legislative elections at the start of
2005 and is also originally from Isfahan. "The ideal scenario would be
for him to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, Georgik
Abrahamia", suggests Manuche.

Literally applauded by the Armenian minority in Iran, " He tried to
redress the balance between minority and majority, particularly on the
issue of penal rights so that Armenians could enjoy the same rights, and
punishments, as Muslim Iranians", she says.
The former MP is also respected for having brought Armenians into the
mysterious world of local, regional and central administration, the
first time that had happened since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

> Eyes glinting mischievously, Manuche drops in an aside. Having been
used to lambasting a theocratic regime that imposed strict restrictions,
she admits that certain religious minorities, hers in particular, but
also Jews and Zoroastrians, enjoy a freedom that is as exceptional as it
is unexpected within the Islamic Republic. Armenians could even pass for
privileged members of society in this strict regime.

An identity that is curbed, but still present even in the public domain

"We live like Muslims - we have to work on Sundays and we're subject to
Islamic laws. But the government does allow us to have holidays for the
most important religious festivals such as Christmas or Easter",
explains Levon, a young Armenian student of Armenology at the University
of Isfahan. His words are clear, namely that the central authority in
Iran practices a controlled form of tolerance.

Closer inspection reveals that New Julfa is teeming with symbols of a
blatant 'Armenianness', even an exaggerated sense of community. The
streets in the district hide a dozen churches, but also an Armenian
nursery school, primary school and secondary school. As for Farsi, it is
sometimes replaced by Armenian, even on the signs of some stalls.

In a grotesque turn of events, fashionable Armenian cafйs are deemed
'Turkish cafйs', yet all the while proudly displaying posters
commemorating the 90th anniversary of the Armenian genocide of 1915.
Women wear the standard Islamic veil, but in this part of town, the
fabric used is much more colourful than normal.
In this district, it has to be said, just as in the rest of the
southern part of town, locals are traditionally more middle-class and
liberal than in the north of Isfahan, which is poorer. The makes of cars
stand as testament to this fact - the few Mercedes around, apart from
those used by the police, cross paths in New Julfa.

But the heart of Armenian identity is to be found elsewhere in the area.
Archbishop Babgen Vartabet Tsharian, who has left for Tehran to welcome
Catholicos II on a visit to Iran, is a key figure in New Julfa.
You'll usually see him in the courtyard of the St Saviour church. The
church is a marvel of religious architecture dating from the 17th
century and, if its more fervent admirers are anything to go by, it is
one of the most beautiful churches in the Muslim world.

"The history of St Saviour is linked to that of the Armenians of
Isfahan", explains Rima, a 33 year-old teacher. "The first chapel was
built in 1606, at the time when Shah Abbas I forced 30,000 Armenians,
mostly merchants, to emigrate out of present-day Nakhichevan to this
part of Isfahan, which was the capital of Persia at the time."
Having been afforded complete religious freedom right from the start,
this merchant community played a key role back then in the trade of silk
and spices, with a vast network of trading posts between East and West.

Threatened by emigration

But the golden past of New Julfa is over. After the Islamic revolution
and the accession to power of Imam Khomeini, the Armenian diaspora of
Isfahan and its surroundings started to decline. Many Armenians
emigrated, either for the United States, Canada, Europe or sometimes
even Armenia. But despite a slight relaxation in the Khatami regime over
the past few years, living conditions still prompt young Armenians to

"Nearly half of the Armenian community has left for Marseilles and Los
Angeles", continues Rima. Some people say that there are 200,000
Armenians in Iran, others, more pessimistically, place the figure nearer
100,000. And even though the community of New Julfa represents an
historic minority, the 60,000 Armenians of Tehran today make up the
largest Armenian community in Iran.

Rima most of all fears the exodus of intellect. "It's become quite easy
for the younger generation to go to university. But once they are
qualified, many of them prefer to leave the country." She admits that
she once considered following her brother and going to Yerevan, the
Armenian capital, or to Shoushi in Nagorno Karabakh.

Despite everything, those who remain in New Julfa continue to live life
according to events in Armenia. "I only rarely glance at the Iranian
news", says Levon. "I prefer to follow what's happening in Yerevan by
watching satellite television."
Many of them buy the daily Armenian newspaper Aliq, which is published
in Tehran and, as with all papers in Iran, is subject to censorship and
self-censorship. More rarely, people buy Asbarez, which is published in
the United States. Word of mouth is also a source of information, a
technique mostly employed during meetings in the leisure clubs that are
strictly reserved for Armenians.

Today, the current watchword in New Julfa is the preservation of the
Armenian identity. "We live separately from Muslims in order to protect
our culture. We try to keep relations with those outside our society
strictly to business", explains Rima defensively, a smile on her lips
and a certain sense of determination. "We have succeeded in keeping our
community together for 400 years. We must carry on doing so."