#8 in a series that started here.
One of the first sights I visited in Iran was a perfectly preserved and functioning 17th Century Armenian Christian church, the Holy Savior Cathedral – complete with crosses and elaborate paintings of Christian crucifixion and nativity. During the trip, I saw reproductions of The Last Supper (DaVinci’s painting of Jesus and his twelve disciples) in multiple public places. I also saw large monuments and relics from Zoroastrian groups (an ancient monotheistic religion) that were prominently preserved and protected. My assumptions about how other religions fared in the “Islamic Republic of Iran” were wrong — or at least incomplete.
Unlike the radical Sunni ISIS movement, Iran’s leadership has not generally destroyed monuments or culture of other religious groups. The ancient Persian-Iranian imperial hero Cyrus the Great was known for his tolerance of the diverse practices of the people he’d conquered, and Iranians seems to take some pride in that example. The Republic’s Constitution sets aside five Parliament seats specifically for the country’s minority religions (Armenian and Assyrian Christians, Zoroastrians, and Jews), whose small numbers would otherwise leave them wholly unrepresented.
Make no mistake: Non-Muslims make up maybe 2 percent of the population. And the flip-side of those 5 reserved parliament seats is that the other 285 seats are effectively reserved for Muslims. Other minority religions – notably the Bahai and Sufi — are not recognized and thus effectively prohibited. In several ways, followers of the minority religions are treated as second-class citizens – affecting, for example, their ability to hold most public offices or inherit property. The recognized Christians in Iran are almost exclusively members of distinct ethnic groups who conduct their services in their own languages (not in Farsi), and thus they pose little risk of converting Iranian Muslims to their faiths. (According to the U.S. State Department, such conversion is still theoretically punishable by death.)
Iranian hostility toward Israel can be strong. Israelis are not allowed into Iran, and we (Americans) were told that if our passports even included a stamp from a prior trip to Israel, we would not be allowed into the country. Surprisingly, at the huge National Museum of the Islamic Revolution and Holy Defense in Tehran, there was an exhibit – complete with respectful images of Jesus and Mary and the Jewish Star of David — giving tribute to members of the “minority religions” and their contributions in the Iran/Iraq war. But just outside, the Star of David (as a symbol of Israel and/or Judaism) was part of the conspicuous label for the trash cans.