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Christian cemetery under threat in Iran

Tehran's south is home to Iran's largest Christian cemetery guarded by one elder Muslim. But investors have cast an eye on the property, the city's authorities have revoked the permit and the cemetery is rotting away.

Mr Ahmadi* stands in front of one of the graves on a Christian cemetery in Tehran and can't believe his eyes. There's yet another broken tombstone. Last fall, there hadn't been a single sign of a crack. "Bloody cold," he mumbles to himself and continues his morning round at the graveyard.

Ahmadi has been guarding this Christian cemetery in Tehran's Darvazeh Doulab neighborhood for the past 15 years. He watches over the huge iron gate at the entrance and takes care of duties like cutting grass. No one knows more about the tombstones here than he does. "Not even the president has as many graves as I do," he says.

It's spring in the city. People hustle and bustle in the streets, while diplomats from seven European countries have gathered at the Austrian embassy in Tehran's wealthy north to discuss the future of Ahmadi's cemetery, which has come under threat from the city's construction boom.

Saving the cemetery

Doulab cemetery (photo: David Eickhoff)

Some tombstones have been severely damaged over the years

The Europeans have decided to save the graveyard. "Something needs to be done", says Miklos Karpati, a Catholic priest in Teheran. According to reports by the Christian Iranian news agency Mohabat there have been numerous cases of vandalism targeting Christian monuments and places of worship in Iran.

"This kind of destruction is not exceptional. But complaints about it just falls on deaf ears with authorities," Karpati says. That's why they have decided to set up an internet website to inform the public.

Narrow streets with two-story buildings covered in sandy bricks lead up to the Doulab cemetery. The roadside ditch carries a dirty stream full of trash from the city. Men sit in parks, stretch their legs and spit out sunflower seed husks. Every now and then dice roll over their backgammon board. They then move their checkers - the air is dry and smells like exhaust fumes.

The iron gate at the cemetery squeaks loudly as Ahmadi opens it. He sticks out his head, his smile reveals black teeth. Siavesh Rastegar came here to visit the grave of his grandmother. He enters the cemetery and Ahmadi shuts the door behind him.

Rastegar works as an architect; he studied at the renowned Architectural Association School of Architecture in London and has done research on the cemetery's history.

"The first burial was in 1855," he says. "Dr Louis Cloquet, a Frenchman, he was the personal physician for [Iranian King] Nasereddin Shah. And since there was no cemetery for Catholics at the time, the shah built him a mausoleum." Europeans were highly regarded in Iran at the time. The royal court wanted to profit from technical advances and the sciences. Differences in terms of religion were not a problem at all.

Doulab cemetery (photo: David Eickhoff)

Investors' plans want to convert the graveyard into a park instead

Until 1996, the cemetery was used by Christian parishes and eventually covered an area the size of seven soccer pitches. The city's authorities then pulled the cemetery's license - now, it runs the risk of slowly rotting away.

Part of Iran's national heritage

Ahmadi takes Rastegar to the newly discovered broken tombstone. "Constructors and investors have cast an eye on this piece of land. There are plans to convert this area into a park. But this cemetery is part of [Iran's] national cultural heritage and is protected. But we are in Iran," Rastegar says, suggesting that anything could happen.

The cemetery's five sections host deceased from different Christian confessions: Armenian-Catholic, Armenian-Gregorian, Assyrian-Chaldean, Orthodox and Roman Catholic. They all used to be part of a religious minority when they were still alive. But most of the Iranians don't distinguish between the groups - they call the Doulab cemetery "the Armenian cemetery," even though numerous Europeans, Russians and Georgians have been buried there as well.

Doulab cemetery (photo: David Eickhoff)

Since the autorities revoked the permit, the Doulab cemetery is slowly rotting away

Ahmadi sits in front of his small hut. He boiled rice and now eats his dish with a piece of bread - despite the fact that it's the fasting month of Ramadan. Outside, on the streets, the loudspeaker cracks as the muezzin calls Muslims to prayer. Ahmadi ignores the call and continues to watch his dogs while they play around. He is of Muslim belief, but it's been a while since he paid a visit to one of the mosques. Dealing with Christians and foreigners, maybe his exceptional profession as well, have turned him into a quirky outsider. Whenever someone comes to visit him at work, it's usually guards from the other cemetery districts or a couple of conscripts from the nearby barracks who come here to repair their motorcycles.

Behind closed doors

Recognized religious minorities in Iran are not allowed to evangelize. They usually hold their rituals behind closed doors. This discretion comes with privileges that the Muslim majority doesn't have. The Armenian clubs in Teheran for instance are popular meeting points for Armenians and foreigners, because alcohol can be served here and people are allowed to dance. Muslims are not allowed to enter though.

Ahmadi says he has heard from such places in Teheran where women without headscarves are sunbathing on deckchairs. This sounds promising to him, but he has never dared to ask visitors if it's actually true.

Doulab cemetery (photo: David Eickhoff)

There are about 2,500 Iranian and European Catholics buried here

Reality in an Armenian club is much more modest than Ahmadi imagined: Tables and chairs are placed on red concrete; visitors sit right under grape-vines. There's a sun-tanned piano man in a white suit and a pink tie; some guests are dressed in evening attire, some have put sweaters around their shoulders. They chat and joke over veal tongue and red wine. People coming here certainly want to indulge in food and the atmosphere.

One of these people might be buried in Ahmadi's cemetery some day. But for that to happen, the city authority would have to renew the permit. There would be enough space - Karpati, the Christian priest, has been working towards obtaining the permit for a long time. With the embassies on board, chances might have increased. But mills grind slowly, even in Iran.

In the meantime, yet another tombstone has fallen over in the graveyard. Ahmadi just noticed it this morning. "Another one that's gone," he mumbles as he continues his path.

* all names have been changed except names of public persons

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