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Isfahan's 17th-century Vank Armenian church
Photo by Reza N. Bakhtiar

Iranian Christians celebrate Christmas in the middle of Ramadan

By Kianouche Dorranie

TEHRAN, 24 Dec (AFP) - Nativity scenes, Father Christmases, and pine trees fill the streets of Tehran as Iran's Christians prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ in the middle of the holy Moslem month of Ramadan.

While Iran's Moslem majority is spending the daylight hours fasting, Christians are busily preparing their own ceremonies in Tehran and across the country.

In the Armenian quarters of Tehran, hundreds of pine trees placed along the walls of the buildings remind people of the approach of the "January festivals."

Families are crowding into the centre to buy Christmas presents in shops with gaily decorated windows, often with a Christmas crib at the centre.

In the city centre and in the Armenian districts, Father Christmases jostle with the crowd.

Of the two major Christian communities in the country, the Assyrians will be celebrating the birth of Christ on Friday, but the Armenians have another two weeks to wait. Their Christmas does not fall until January 6, after the New Year.

According to generally accepted figures, there are some 300,000 Armenians, Assyrians and Chaldeans living in Iran, where they enjoy the freedom of religion guaranteed by the constitution of the Islamic Republic.

The biggest is the Armenian community, based mainly in Tehran, where their leader, Archbishop Ardak Manukian, resides. Their main place of worship in the capital is Saint Sarkis Cathedral, north of Villa street.

They have a club in northern Tehran barred to Moslems, where they can enjoy themselves without having to observe the dress code or religious restrictions that have been the law in since the 1979 revolution.

They also have a number of religious sites, including the great Vank cathedral in Isfahan, proof of the ancient roots and rich cultural heritage of the Christian community that has been in Persia since the 16th century.

There is still a large Assyrian community as well, despite a wave of emigration to the West after 1979. One of the oldest Christian communities in the world, they follow the Nestorian rite, condemned as heretical in the fifth century.

Most Iranian Assyrians come from the border regions with Iraq. They have kept Chaldean as their religious language, and as their spoken language they use Syriac, the modern form of Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

Christians are represented in Iran's parliament by two Armenians and one Assyrian. Every year Iranian leaders send greetings for Christmas and the New Year to show their respect for Christianity and for Christians living in Iran.

Last December, President Mohammad Khatami send a message to members of the Christian community in Iran, describing Jesus as "a symbol of mercy, friendship and of the spirit and word of God." This year, Christmas and New Year festivities coincide with Ramadan, the most holy time of the islamic calendar during which the faithful fast during the day.

On Friday the people of Tehran have been invited to take part in the Moslem prayers to be led by the spiritual leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Copyright © 1997 Abadan Publishing Co. All Rights Reserved. May not be duplicated or distributed in any form