1 June 2015
Iran’s national football team prepared to head to the World Cup last year,
Andranik Teymourian stood next to his teammates while they lined up to kiss the
holy Islamic book, the Qur’an, as part of the farewell ceremony.
he is not a Muslim, the Iranian Armenian didn’t want to rock the boat and so
performed the ritual for travellers, which is a quintessential part of Iranian
culture. The cleric holding up the Qur’an could hardly disguise his amusement
at the scene.
32-year-old midfielder, known as Ando – or Samurai, due to his hairstyle – is
not shy of showing his Christianity,
often crossing himself on the field. In April, Teymourian, who has played for
Bolton Wanderers and Fulham, became the first Christian to lead Iran’s football
team as its permanent captain.
happy that as a Christian I play in a Muslim team,” he said in
a recent interview. “I have Armenian roots but I hold the Iranian passport
and I’m proud of that, I hold my flag high. I hope I can enhance the good
reputation of Armenian people in Iran.”
Armenians make up the majority of Iran’s estimated 300,000 Christians.
Armenians are fully integrated in Iranian society, from the musician Loris
Tjeknavorian to Sombat Hacoupian, who founded one of the country’s most famous
men’s clothing brands and is now a household name.
Islam is Iran’s official religion, it recognises Christians, Jews and
Zoroastrians as accepted religious minorities. They are permitted their house
of worship and usual religious services, and have reserved seats in the Iranian
parliament. In a country where alcohol and pigmeat are forbidden, Christians
are allowed to distil booze and eat pork.
are at least 600 churches in Iran,
including the sixth-century St Mary Church of Tabriz, mentioned by Marco Polo
in his travel book. The adjacent province of West Azerbaijan boasts the ancient
St Thaddeus Monastery, a Unesco
came to power in 2013, he appointed Ali Younesi, a former intelligence
minister, to serve as his special assistant in minorities’ affairs. It was the
first time such a position had been created.
improvements have since been made but many big challenges remain.
April, as Iran’s northern neighbour, Armenia, commemorated the centenary of the
1915 genocide, the Iranian government, which is usually nervous about public
gatherings, took a rare decision to allow Iranian Armenians to stage
a protest in front of the Turkish embassy in Tehran.
official attitude towards other minorities has also changed. In February, Younesi
announced that Jewish students officially no longer had to go to school on
Saturdays, the sabbath day in the Hebrew calendar. Iranian school weeks run
from Saturday to Thursday, and Friday is the end of the Iranian week.
are numerous reasons why my family left Iran in 1987, but an important one was
the decision by the Iranian government that year not to officially recognise
the holy sabbath as a religious day off for Jewish students,” an
Iranian-Israeli, Meir Javedanfar, blogged
recently as he hailed the new decision.
administration has tried to revamp Iran’s image, especially concerning the
official attitude towards the country’s Jewish community, after it was badly
tarnished under his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was notorious for his
Holocaust denials and antisemitic tirades.
took Iran’s sole Jewish MP to New York with his entourage in his first visit to
the UN general assembly. He has since condemned the mass killings of Jews by
the Nazis as crime against humanity, tweeted a Rosh Hashanah blessing for
Jewish new year, and honoured Iranian Jewish soldiers who lost their lives in
the eight-year war against Iraq in the 1980s.
his appointment, Younesi – who is a Muslim cleric – has visited synagogues and
churches across the country. According to the reformist Shargh daily, he said
after one of those visits in the city of Shiraz: “Iran belongs to all Iranians
from any ethnic or religious groups and all of them have a right to live
peacefully along other citizens.” He was also quoted as saying: “No one is
allowed to suppress or infringe the rights of any minority groups. We all have
government last year donated
nearly half a million dollars to Tehran’s Jewish hospital. But hardliners,
who are strongly opposed to such conciliatory moves, have not remained quiet.
Instead, they have held Holocaust denial cartoon competitions in the capital.
is believed to have the largest Jewish population in the Middle East after
Israel. But the country’s Jewish population slumped after the Islamic revolution,
when many Iranian Jews emigrated to Israel or other countries.
spite of animosity between Iran and Israel, Iranians are the least antisemitic
people in the Middle East, according to the
latest poll by the US-based Anti-Defamation League (ADL). However, although
Iranian Jews are free to practise their faith like other minorities,
some report feeling like second-class citizens.
situation of Zoroastrianism is much better. Iranians were Zoroastrians before
Islam arrived in Iran and the country’s culture is a mixture of Islamic and
Zoroastrian traditions. Many traditions survive from those ancient times, such
as Nowruz, or Persian new year, which is a holy day for Zoroastrians but also
the most important holiday for millions of Iranian Muslims.
improvements, one notable exception is the Baha’i faith, which is still banned
and its followers persecuted and even imprisoned.
in jail include Faran Hesami, a Bahá’í mother of a four-year-old, who was
arrested for teaching members of the community in Iran who are banned from
university because of their religious affiliation. Seven Bahá’í leaders have
been imprisoned for the past seven years, each serving 20-year sentences.
100 Bahá’ís are wrongly imprisoned solely because of their religious beliefs,
thousands more are excluded from higher education, and the Bahá’í community as
a whole is discriminated against in employment and prevented from freely
assembling for worship and community activities,” said Diane Ala’i, the
representative of the Bahá’í International Community to the UN in Geneva.
also remains highly sensitive towards the issue of conversion. Muslims who
convert to other religions risk being arrested. More than 90 are behind bars,
includuing pastor Saeed Abedini, who holds an Iranian American citizenship.
Muslims whose denominations are not accepted by Iran, such as Gonabadi
dervishes, face persecution, with many of their members in jail.
is trying to improve the situation of ethnic groups. Earlier this year, Iran
unveiled the first book in Kurdish language to be officially taught in schools
in the country’s Kurdistan region. However, widespread persecution persists
against Arab, Kurdish and Azeri activists.
December 2013, in a rare example of a politician from a minority group being
promoted in Shia-dominated Iran, a Sunni woman, Samieh
Baluchzehi, who belongs to the country’s Baluchi ethnic minority, was
chosen as the mayor of a provincial city.