Tolerance of other religions was an aspect of the Islamic Republic of Iran that surprised me, although I admit my preconceived notions were influenced by having lived in another fundamentalist Islamic state, Saudi Arabia. There, no other religions are condoned and non-Moslems seeking to practice their religion are forced to do so in utter secrecy, and at their own peril. For instance “non-believers” are not allowed to enter Mecca, and an early experience of life there was the need to take what was termed “the Christian Bypass”, a highway which skirted around Mecca, to travel up the Escarpment from coastal Jeddah to the much cooler summer mountain retreat of Taif.
Watercolour – Taif mosque.
Ester and Mordechai Tomb, Hamadan; Zoroastrian Fire Temple, Yazd.
So I was pleasantly surprised when our planned Iran tour itinerary included sites such as the Jewish tomb of Esther and Mordechai in Hamadan, Zoroastrian temples and ancient remains in Yazd and other locations, and the rich and ornate Christian Vank Cathedral in the Armenian Quarter of Isfahan. Lonely Planet makes reference to the long-standing tolerance of Iranians to other religions, especially those of “The Book”, but this acceptance does not stretch to their largest religious minority, the Baha’i, a Shia-based faith whose creed includes the equality of the sexes and the unity of all humanity. Education is a Baha’i priority.
The rich and ornate Armenian Christian Vank Cathedral, Isfahan.
The film Rosewater, the directorial debut of former Daily Show host Jon Stewart, currently showing in Australian cinemas, is the story of Canadian Iranian journalist and filmmaker Maziar Bahari who falls foul of the authorities in his former homeland while covering the 2009 Iranian presidential elections for Newsweek, accused of being a spy, imprisoned, placed in solitary confinement and tortured. Like Bahari, Baha’is in Iran are often arrested on trumped-up spying charges so it’s fitting that following Bahari’s release, apart from writing his memoir, he made a film highlighting the plight of the Baha’i. In a timely release with the international run of Rosewater, the English-language version of To Light a Candle had its premiere in Canada last week. I hope I get an opportunity to see it in Australia before too long.