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The Armenian Christians

Armenia, the original home of the Armenian Christians, which is situated to the northwest of Iran and was one of the satrapies of Iran at the time of the Achamenian rule and for centuries was, before the advent of Islam, a subject of dispute and conflict between the Armenians who had converted into Christianity and the Iranian governments, on the one hand, and the Iranian and Roman empires on the other. Christianity arrived in the Armenian land through the efforts of “St. Gregory the Illuminator” in the 3rd Century AD and later became the official religion of Armenia towards the early 4th Century AD following which the Armenian church recognized the three church councils of Niqhiyeh (328 AD), Constantinople (381 AD), and Efesus (431 AD).

Following the advent of Islam in Iran, the first time that the Muslim troops launched their attacks on the Armenian was in the year 20 AH/641 AD, and subsequently, despite occasional rebellions it remained under the reigns of the Ummayid and Abbasid caliphates until the 5th Century AH/11th Century AD throughout which the Armenian people paid the jizyah to the central government. According to some historians like Estakhri, Moqaddasi, Ibn Huqal, and the author of the “Hodud al-Āalm” during the 4th Century AH/10th Century AD this region was very affluent and various types of merchandise were exported from it to various parts of the world. Following the collapse of the Abbasid rule, Armenia came under the rule of the Seljuqs (426AH/1035AD), the Khwārazm Shahs (622 AH/1225 AD), the Mongols (626 AH/1229 AD), the Timurids (802 AH/1400 AD), and the Qarah Qoyunlu and Āq Qoyunlu Turkmen. Following the rise of the Safavids to power in the 10th Century AH/16th Century AD Armenia became the battleground of the struggles between the two Ottoman and Safavid empires and a number of wars took place between the two for annexing Armenia to their own empire.

In the course of the war launched by Shah Abbas I on the Ottoman Empire in the year 1012 AH/1603 AD he reinstated Tabriz, Nakhjavān, Iravān (Yerevan) to the Iranian territories and then advanced towards Central Armenia and Erzurum (also Erzerum). However, on receiving the news of a retaliatory attack by the great Ottoman army the Shāh decided to retreat and, on his way back, destroyed many cities and villages and in order to avail of the skills and competencies of the Armenians, moved thousands of Armenian families to Iran and made most of them settle in Esfahān and on the banks of Zāyandeh Rud River in the year 1013AH/1604 AD. Subsequently, the Armenians built the Jolfa locality in Esfahan and with all kinds of aid and support that they received from Shah Abbās, they built a number of churches there and also made a lot of efforts towards its progress. Many Europeans who were in Iran during the Safavid rule have given detailed accounts of Jolfa, its progress, and the style of living of the Armenian during those days.

Shah Abbās granted special privileges to the Armenians and by giving them interest-free loans, reducing their taxes, and granting them the right to the silk trade paved the path for their economic progress. As a result of these facilities, the Armenians became very active in the areas of trade and industry and gradually came to commanding a large share in the Iranian economy. Moreover, they were free to indulge in their own religious practices and since the tax collector who was in charge of their taxes halied from among themselves, they were considered to be a separate community. The Armenians were pioneers in importing certain industries to Iran. For instance, according to Tavarniyeh, the first press machine was brought to Iran by an Armenian by the name of “Ya’ghub Zhān (or Jacob John)” in the year 1051 AH/1641 AD.

On the other hand, the inclination shown by Shah Abbās I towards establishing relations with the European countries paved the path for the entry of Christian missionaries into Iran. The first group of Christian missionaries to enter Iran was the Portuguese Augustan group that was sent to Iran in 1007 AH/1598 AD and was followed by the Karmalis, the Roman Catholics, the French Kaposans, and the Jesuits who settled in Esfahān and began their missionary activities among the Armenians. However, owing to the attitude of the Armenians in preserving their own culture and traditional religion these missionaries did not gain much success and their activities were more or less ineffective. Shah Abbas’s successors paid less attention to the Armenians and reduced their privileges and instead added to their taxes such that at the time of Shardon’s stay in Esfahān (during the reign of Shah Soleymān) the Armenians no longer possessed the wealth and facilities that they enjoyed earlier and Jolfa lad lost its former glamour and population.

At the time of the onslaught of the Afghans in Esfahān during the reign of Shah Soltān Hoseyn, like GasaYerevan, Tabriz, Dashti, Qārāgol, and Kachar, the Jolfa and other Armenian localities of Esfahān were among the first localities to face plunder and massacres and since the people of Jolfā were left defenseless by the government they were compelled to pay huge sums to the Afghans in order to save their lives.

When Nāder Shah Afshār came into power, he managed to free the Qareh Bāgh, Ganjeh, Barda’, and Yerevan regions and treated the Armenians with compassion and even accepted to meet Abraham, the bishop of the Armenians in his camp near the Achmiyadzin Church. He then participated in a religious ceremony of the Armenians in their church on the invitation of Bishop Abraham and presented the church with some gifts. During his reign, Nāder Shah showed a lot of tolerance towards the Christian citizens of the country and allowed the Christian missionaries to stay on in Iran. As a result of the activities of these missionaries some Armenians became Catholics and at the same time four catholic churches were established in the Jolfa area of Esfahān. Another step taken by Nāder Shah was that he called on some Christian (both Catholic and Armenian Orthodox), Jew, and Muslim scholars to translate the Old Testament as well as the New Testament into the Persian language. It is also worth mentioning that a large part of Nāder Shah’s army comprised Armenian soldiers.

The Armenians of the central parts of Iran who had fled from Esfahān and Shirāz to Iraq and other regions following the attacks of the Afghans and owing to the limitations enforced on them by Nāder’s successors and the conflicts between the Zands and the Qajars, once again returned to Esfahān and Shirāz on the invitation of Karim Khān Zand, who even gave them villages for settlement after he came to power and managed to establish peace and order in the country.

During the Qajar period and as a result of the various problems faced by the country the Christian population of Iran, too, reduced considerably and many Christians migrated to India and England in search of jobs and better economic conditions. Nevertheless, the Iranian Armenians who had stayed back in the Āzarbāyjān, Gilān, Esfahān, and Shirāz regions continued to command a significant share in the industrial activities of Iran and in economic and trade relations with the European countries. Moreover, a number of Armenians even rose to high official posts in government organizations. For instance, Manuchehr Khan Mo’tamed al-Doleh, who was an Armenian Christian, was appointed as the governor of Gilān, Fārs, Kermānshāh, and Esfahān and was also one of the officials who played a role in the course of the negotiations that led to the Treaty of Turkmanchāi (Torkaman). Mo’tamed al-Doleh’s nephews, Mirzā Rostam Khan, Aghālor Khan, and Soleymān Khan, too, held important positions in the government. However, the most renowned Armenian personality of this period was the famous politician, thinker and writer, Mirza Malkam Khan.

The Iranian Armenians also played an active role in the Constitutional Movement. Armenian volunteers who had joined the movement from beyond the Caucasus as well the eastern part of Armenia – that was under the Ottoman occupation at that time – came to assist their counterpart Muslim freedom fighters while the armed Armenian units who were under the command of Ārshāk Gāfāfiyān participated in defending Tabriz under the leadership of Sattār Khan. During the Movement, Khan Dāvitiyān who was the commander of a group of Armenian volunteers, entered Tehran victoriously along with Sepahdār Tonkāboni and Sardār As’ad, after a successful battle in the Rasht City, and was appointed the commander-in-chief on the armed forces. Khan Dāvitiyān ultimately lost his life in a battle with the anti-revolutionaries in Hamadān.

According to the Constitutional Law of the Islamic Republic of Iran - like the other religious minorities - the Jews, the Zoroastrians, and the Assyrians, the Armenians, too, enjoy certain rights and are free to indulge in their own religious ceremonies and rites and follow their own personal laws as per the tenets of their religion. The Armenians of north and south Iran have their own separate representatives in the Islamic Consultative Assembly (Majles) of the Islamic Republic of Iran.



* source: Lajevardi , Fatemeh " Iran Entry " The Great Islamic Encyclopedia . Ed. Kazem Musavi Bojnourdi.Tehran: The Center of Great Islamic Encyclopaedia , 1989-, V.10 , pp.600 - 602

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