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Middle East Jasmine Dispatch

'Cause you gotta have faith...A Visit to the Black Church
March 25, 2000

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Peeking out from behind the veil of my new mekne, (a veil worn by Iranian women), I watched as the team unloaded from the Trek Bus which will tour us through Iran for the next 30 days. Fully covered in our new roupushes, which are the overcoats that women wear to disguise feminine figures that might be overexposed when wearing pants, we disembarked to visit the Black Church. If I didn't know any better, I would have mistaken the Odyssey Worldtrek women for conservative Muslim women.

"Hello Sister Mary Jasmine!" Abeja giggled, since my afro under a mekne veil makes me look more like a nun than an Iranian woman. I smiled and greeted my fellow sisters but the reality of our presence in Iran dawned on me and I could hardly giggle. As I stared into the windows of the Black Church the significance of the monument gripped my soul. We had driven for three straight hours along a tiny two-lane road, into the seemingly empty void of the Azerbayjane Province of Iran, to get to the Black Church.

Map
The mountains rolled by on either side of the bus. I noticed the icy sheets of snow formed in the shadows and creases that were able to evade the melting rays of the sun. At the foot of the mountains lay dry deserted plains, brown from the dry winter that marks Iran's third dry year. Then just as I began to wonder if there was anything along this road besides scenic mountains, I viewed the towers of a seemingly unimpressive building poking up from the void.

Alongside it were a few small adobe like houses built of mud brick and sand. We had company for the first time in hours as men and children from the village next to the church walked up to the road to meet us. After an exchange with Hadi, our tour leader and chaperone, one man from the village began to lead our group down the snowy hillside to the church gates, enclosed within the fortress-like walls. For nearly 1000 years, pilgrims traveled this way through the desert, over mountains, into the empty barren valley, to this church.

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Caption
Christianity has had a long presence in Ancient Persia and what is now Iran. In fact, it has been present in the country longer than Islam. The mere existence in such a harsh desert region can make life challenging, and that is just the beginning.

Jewish presence is first documented in the region when the Babylonians captured the Israelites and brought them to their vast kingdom as slaves in 722BCE. Ancient Babylon spanned today's Syria, Iraq, Eastern Turkey, and Iran. With its rich kingdom overflowing with wealth, jewels and grand luxuries, Babylonians had all they desired. They had no need for a god.

Instead, they basked in wine, revelry, and war, gaining for themselves riches and a reputations as heathens. One of the most famous Biblical scriptures predicts Babylon's fate as a result of turning its face and the people of its nation from God. "Fallen is Babylon the Great, which made all the nation's drink the maddening wine of her adulteries." The ancient Babylonians did eventually fall and they were replaced by the Chaldeans. But it wasn't until the Zoroastrian followers of Zortosht came on the scene in the 6th century BCE that Persians were introduced to a monotheist religion. Despite its lasting impact, Zoroastrianism was short-lived and quickly replaced by Christianity, which swept in from Turkey and the West.

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Caption
For centuries, through the Armenian church, Christianity thrived in Iran. Numerous Christians are forever remembered as they gave their lives for their beliefs. Surviving Armenians in Iran are descendants of those who were murdered in the Armenian genocide that spilled over into Northern Iran. Those who stayed in the border towns were killed, and those who fled survived and came back to occupy the town once the area was safe again. After suffering much persecution, the Black Church is the greatest memorial to the surviving pilgrims throughout the country.

The actual time of construction of the Black Church is unknown, but it is thought to have been built during the 10th Century. After a major earthquake, it was rebuilt in the 17th Century. Although the salvageable part of the original structure was preserved, only sections of the altar and the back of the church still display the black stone that originally made up the entire building.

Vocabulary

heathen - one who is regarded as irreligious, uncivilized, or unenlightened
monotheist - someone who believes that there is only one god
genocide - the systematic and planned extermination of an entire national, racial, political, or ethnic group
persecution - the act of being oppressed or harassed, especially because of race, religion, sexual orientation, or beliefs
inconspicuous - not readily noticed

While Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism are tolerated faiths, Islam is the only accepted religion in Iran today, a country that boasts a 99.3% Muslim population. The Persian cross still represents Iranian Christians and can be seen throughout the land. Churches are said to be found in any major city. The key word here is "found." Most churches try to remain inconspicuous and are usually located on small, secluded streets. The congregations are not very active outside of the confines of their church grounds. Any organized attempt to convert Muslims is outlawed and severely punishable. Christians quietly practice their faith and only come out to the Black Church once a year, in June, to celebrate the Feast of Thaddeus. During the three day ceremony, pilgrims set up tents (as accommodations are scarce in the desert) and pay tribute to the legacy of Christian faith in an Islamic Republic.

Jasmine

p.s. - Please e-mail me at ...jasminehamlett@bigfoot.com
 

Abeja - Fire Jumping in Modern Persia
Brian - Of Sheep and Sacrifice
Kavitha - Mission Impossible? Crossing the Border into Iran
Monica - We are Family! Come on Everybody and Sing!
Team - Amnesty International fights for Human Rights in the United States

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