Iran’s minority Armenian Christians celebrate New Year with fireworks, prayers

The Associated Press
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 Testament.

“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.