The Saint Mary Church of Hamedan in Iran. (Social media)

August 25, 2020

The sign for St. Peter’s Evangelical Church is small and partially obscured. The iron door to the building is closed and there is no doorbell. We knock, but no-one seems to be in.

“Looking for something?” asks a nearby traffic warden.

“We’ve come to visit.”

He laughs and says, “Visit? This is not a place for non-Christian Iranians to visit. On Fridays only Armenians, Assyrians, and foreign tourists can enter the church.”

The church was built in 1878 during the Qajar dynasty and its architecture is a fusion of Iranian and European styles. It is said to have been constructed by protestant missionaries who came to Tehran, and was registered on the Iran National Heritage List in 2000.

“Until a few years ago,” says Armen, an Armenian living in Tehran, “the public was free to enter this old church, but Christian converts also came here. With the increase in pressure on these converts, non-Christians and Assyrians were barred from entering. The church is now only open on Fridays.”

Next door to the church is the Mersad School, another Christian establishment set up by Samuel Jordan, the American presbyterian missionary who founded Alborz High School. “It’s built next to the church for Christian religious education,” says Armen. “That is, education and worship together. The school is now in the hands of the Ministry of Education.”

A little further down 30 Tir Street is Haim Synagogue. This was the first synagogue to be built outside of Odlajan, Tehran’s historic Jewish quarter. Its creator was Soleiman Haim, the famous Iranian lexicographer whose Persian-English and English-Persian dictionaries are still in print today after more than 80 years.

The blue door to the synagogue is half-open. Before entering, we knock a few times, then open it fully. An old man walks slowly up to us and asks, “Were you looking for something?”

When we tell him that we have come as visitors, he offers just one sentence in response before rapidly closing the door. “This is not a museum and I am not allowed to let in any non-Jews.”

Not far from here is the Temple of Adrian: a Zoroastrian fire temple that also dates back to the Qajar period and was listed in January 2003 as an Iranian national monument. It is said to have been built on the instruction of Kaykhosrow Shahrokh, who designed the Ferdowsi mausoleum in the city of Tus and was then an elected member of parliament representing Iran’s Zoroastrian community.

“I felt that a place of worship was needed for the congregation,” he wrote in a note about its construction, “because there were no temples in Tehran for the community (about 500 people, who were mostly engaged in agriculture and trade) until that date.

“I raised the matter with the late Bahramji Bikaji, one of the great Persian philanthropist. He promised to help. I gave him a written direction; he traveled to Mumbai and enacted it there. Fortunately, Persians paid for the establishment of Adrian [Temple], both for the building and for the maintenance.”

At the top of the wooden door of the fire temple is a marble plaque on which the message is inscribed: To the satisfaction of Ahura Mazda [God]. We ring the buzzer and a woman answers. “We’ve come to visit the fire temple,” we say.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “It has been closed for six months and it is not possible for you to enter.” She has no further explanation.

Later, a Zoroastrian friend gives us what might be an explanation. “The security forces have become very sensitive to the presence of Muslims at Zoroastrian temples and ceremonies, and have been constantly warning the temples about it for years.

“Even the celebration of Jashn-e Sadeh [an annual festival celebrating a mythic Persian king’s discovery of fire], which used to be open to all, has now been reserved for Zoroastrians for several years now.”

She pauses and says, “Of course, I don’t think this is a Zoroastrian issue. I have heard that the followers of other religions have also been warned. In any case, they think the presence of Muslims at these ceremonies may lead them to become them interested in other religions. But they’re forgetting the obvious: people believe in a religion with their hearts.”

Iran Wire

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.