The narrow, winding lanes of the Jolfa neighborhood in Iran’s central Isfahan province, along the southern bank of Zayandeh-Rud River, are still basking in the ambiance of Christmas and New Year’s celebrations.

The largest quarter of Armenian Christians in Iran, who make up the bulk of the country’s Christian population, is situated in the heart of Iran’s cultural capital and comes alive around Christmas every year.

Like many of his friends, for 34-year-old theater artist Kaveh Moallemi, a visit to Vanak Church, also known as the Holy Savior Cathedral, is an integral part of the annual Christmas festivities.

The 17th-century cathedral has long been a prime tourist attraction in Jolfa, which Moallemi refers to as a “mini country” of minority Christians in Iran.

“As an Iranian Christian, I feel at home in Jolfa,” he told Anadolu Agency. “To listen to church bells, go for prayer meetings, attend cultural events and mix with fellow Christians — it can’t get any better.”

In the capital of Tehran, there are also a few popular meeting points for the city’s small number of Christians, most notably St. Vartan Church on Dah Metri Aramaneh Street and St. Sarkis Church on Villa Avenue — not far from the city’s busy nerve center.

Mirzaye Shirazi Street and Nejatollahi Street, in the vicinity of the churches, witness a large rush of shoppers for Christmas, looking for Santa Claus dolls, artificial pine trees, colorful lights and pastries.

Christians in Iran, mostly of Armenian background, as well as Assyrians, Catholics, Protestants and Evangelicals, number around 300,000 to 370,000, scattered across major Iranian cities like Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz and Tabriz.

While they appear to have the freedom to practice their religion and engage in trade and business, there have been controversies about their preaching and conversions that have dominated the news over the years.

Christians in Iran

Most Christians in Iran are financially well-off owing to their presence in important businesses, most famously in food and confectionaries. They own and run many shops in central Tehran and other cities.

Many attribute it to the fact that all government jobs are not open to religious minorities like Christians in Iran, while some believe it is because Armenian Christians have traditionally been associated with business and trade.

“The question of freedom or religious tolerance vis-a-vis religious minorities in Iran has no easy answers, but the overall picture is not very grim,” a member of the Iranian Christian Association based in Tehran told Anadolu Agency. He chose not to be identified for this piece.

He said government jobs are “fewer” for Christians but they have seats reserved in parliament — two for Armenian Christians and one for Assyrian Christians, voted by their respective community constituents.

Christian students, he elaborated, are free to apply for school and university admissions in Iran, as well as higher education scholarships. They also run their community-based schools, even though the curriculum is decided by the government.

“Having said that, some red lines have been earmarked that must not be crossed,” he told Anadolu Agency, referring to religious conversions, which has resulted in many being jailed over the years.

The Christian Broadcast Network, a US-based conservative evangelical television station, in a 2018 report claimed that Christianity was “growing faster” in Iran “than any other country,” pointing to the phenomenon of religious conversions in Iran that is banned by law.

According to official sources, dozens of Christian evangelists are currently imprisoned in Iranian jails, mostly for conversions and undermining security.

The Supreme Court in a path-breaking ruling in November said preaching Christianity through houses or churches does not constitute a crime, giving hope to many presently serving jail terms.

But it remains to be seen how the ruling will play out and whether the powerful clergy will give its nod.

Jews in Iran

In a country where “wiping Israel off the world map” is a popular rallying cry, a tiny minority of Jews also resides here, even though with little visibility in public spaces.

Quite remarkably, a popular synagogue in Tehran’s Yusuf Abad neighborhood, close to the city’s busiest intersection, functions without any security cover.

Siyamak More Sedgh, a Jewish Iranian politician and two-time member of parliament, cites it to make his point about religious tolerance in Iran.

“There are few countries where synagogues don’t require any form of protection and Iran is one of them,” Sedgh told Anadolu Agency, adding that there is “no record of organized crime” against religious minorities in the country where Islam is the state religion.

There are around 12,000 to 15,000 Jews in Iran, according to conservative estimates. Prior to the 1979 revolution, Iranian Jews numbered 150,000, many of whom fled abroad after the last monarch Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was deposed.

Some attribute mass the exodus of Jews to the execution of Iranian Jewish businessman Habib Elghanian on charges of spying for Israel after the revolution ended Iran’s diplomatic ties with Tel Aviv.

Today, Iranian Jews, a minuscule minority in a country of 80 million, share a good rapport with reformists and conservatives. They have one reserved seat in parliament, which Sedgh held between 2008 and 2020.

What has helped them integrate into the predominantly Muslim Iranian society is the fact that they see themselves are Iranian first.

Sedgh, who also heads Dr. Sapir Hospital and Charity Center, a Jewish charitable institution in Tehran, said the difference between Europeans and Muslims is that Muslim nations “have always respected followers of other faiths.”

“In Europe, the concept of religious tolerance became trendy when people turned their backs on religion and embraced laicism,” he said.

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