June 8, 2021
In a flurry of tears and hatred, he is packing up his bags. He’s not happy, but knows to stay fully focused so as not to mis a thing. This is an irreversible journey.
He will shortly be emigrating from his ancestral homeland. The land of his forefathers, and a brick house that holds decades of memories and attachment, built by hand with heart and soul. The cause of this is that he is not a Muslim.
While he lives out these final days in Iran, he remains afraid to recount the reasons why on the record, for fear of reprisal. For this reason, we’ll call him Aydin.
“When I was younger it was easier to bear being a second-class citizen,” says 45-year-old Aydin, a sculptor and decorator who began learning his trade as a child from his grandparents. “But now, I’m older and less patient, and while my own children have grown up and are gradually trying to get into the job market, I can no longer tolerate it.”
The Iranian Constitution only recognizes four religions. Even the three official religious minority groups, Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians, whose rights are only partially enshrined in Article 13 of the Constitution, see their civil and legal freedoms curtailed and are often prevented from practicing their faith. Finding work is particularly difficult, and unwritten agreements bar non-Muslims from government, decision-making roles and jobs in the legal profession.
Armenian Christians have had a centuries-long presence in Iran. But more and more of their schools have been shut down and the population is seeing a worrying decline. The total number of Armenians in Iran is currently fewer than 50,000, while before the Islamic Revolution it stood at 250,000.
“Based on the documents available,” Aydin says, “including the 1966 census, about 320 Armenians lived in Mashhad before the Islamic Revolution. But after the revolution, their number stood at 210 in 1986.
“This trend has continued in recent years, to the point that Armenians have now completely abandoned this city. The Church of Saint Mary, which was the main church of Mashhad, built in 1941 and was registered as a listed building, has been fully closed and all the objects and symbols of the Armenian Anthropological Museum has been transferred to Tehran.”
The widespread emigration of Armenians has taken place across the country, while their holy sites are shuttered behind them and once-proud cemeteries lie in ruins.
Lili, an Armenian photographer born and raised in Tehran, is disturbed by the loss of her Armenian colleagues and blames the closure of schools. “Until a decade ago, there were about 17 schools and Armenian educational centers in Tehran, but now there are just seven.”
The drastic decline suggests Iranian-Armenian migration might now be accelerating, prompted perhaps by the stifling economic pressure. Coronavirus has now led to a wave of job losses, making the opportunities even narrower for non-Muslim religious groups.
Lili adds that Armenians do not face such stringent restrictions on conducting religious rites and observing traditions in Iran, although they are banned from publicizing or promoting their face. Rather, she says: “The problem is when we try to earn a living and can’t expect anything from the government. Wherever we go for employment, if we mark the non-Muslim option in the application form, we have violated the first condition and deprived ourselves of the right to hold administrative and government jobs.”
Other young Armenians have been made to feel inferior to their Muslim compatriots through restrictions on their individual and social freedoms. For this reason, many prefer to move to another country despite the pain of the irreversible departure.
Ruben, an Iranian-Armenian history student, is emphatic about the role Armenians have played in Iran’s rich history, arts and culture. He refers us to the writings of Hovik Minasyan, a famous Armenian researcher and historian, who declared in one of his books: “Armenians introduced 56 jobs and industries to Iran for the first time. From architecture and jewellery to the first travel agency and sausage factory … Also, more than 150 huge and magnificent buildings in Tehran, including the Palace of Justice, Sadabad Palace, the Vahdat Hall, the Museum of Ancient Iran, the Marmar Palace, Mehrabad Airport, and so on were built by Armenian architects. In addition to architecture and industry, Armenians have a great presence in the arts and sports. Samuel Khakchian and Varouj Karim Masihi are two prominent Armenian film directors.
“However, we face the same restrictions that Islam has set for its followers. This is not acceptable to most young people today.”
“During the month of Ramadan,” Ruben adds, “no-one of any religion has the right to eat on the street. In the month of Muharram, followers of any religion are not allowed to hold weddings and celebrations. This issue, along with the compulsory hijab and widespread unemployment, has narrowed life for Armenian citizens, especially the youth.”