The following article was written by an Iranian citizen journalist on the ground inside the country, who writes under a pseudonym to protect his identity.
Urmia, the capital of the Iranian province of West Azarbaijan, is a Shia-majority city. But it is also home to scores of churches and temples — between 60 and 80, depending on whether you count chapels as churches or not.
Among them are Mother Mary, which was built in the early first century A.D. Assyrian Christian lore has it that it is the oldest church in the East, and that it was originally a Zoroastrian temple. When three of the temple’s priests, or Magi, saw a bright star in the sky, they followed it to Bethlehem to welcome the birth of the savior.
Some churches in Urmia date back to antiquity. According to the archeologists of the Iranian Cultural Heritage Organization, a number of these churches were built during Sassanid’s reign of the Persian Empire, from 224 to 651 A.D.
The city is multi-ethnic and multi-religious. Turks, Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians and Persian have lived there a very long time, usually in peaceful coexistence. As well as the churches, there are about 600 mosques in Urmia and its surroundings, mostly for Shias, but also for Sunnis.
Based on the last national census in 2011, Urmia’s population is around 670,000. There is no reliable or official statistics about the ethnic or religious make-up of the city, but unofficial statistics indicate that about 80 percent of the city’s population is made up of Turks; 10 percent are Kurdish, over five percent are Persian; two percent are Assyrians; and less than one percent of the city’s population is Armenian.
Throughout the history of Christians of Urmia and the region, the biggest calamity was during World War I. The Young Turks, who began taking over the crumbling Ottoman Empire, unleashed a campaign of mass murder against Armenians, Assyrians and other ethnic and religious minorities both inside and outside the Ottoman borders, including in the northwestern parts of Iran, which they had invaded. The numbers are in dispute, but some historians believe around three million people were massacred between 1914 and 1920.
Urmia’s Christians are Armenian, Chaldean or Assyrian. Today, their populations are small, but the number of churches in the city is a testimony to their historical roots, especially in the case of the Assyrians, who are the descendants of the once-mighty Assyrian Empire and the ancestors of the Chaldeans, who ruled Babylon in the sixth century B.C.
In Urmia, Christians belong to different denominations: Catholics, Protestants, Nestorians, Gregorians, and so on. Because of this, the city’s churches and chapels are different from one other. These differences can be seen in both architecture and the different rites of worship. Between 10 to 15 of the churches are built from stone, and they were constructed mainly between the fourth and seventh centuries A.D.
The Church of Mother Mary has a façade that goes back to the Sassanid period. Its arches and domes are similar to Zoroastrian temples, which were built at the same time. Over the past few centuries, the church has mainly been used as a cemetery.
As well as the churches in the city proper, many villages around Urmia are home to one or more churches. There are still a small number of Assyrians living in these villages, though most have migrated to places with bigger populations, such as Urmia or Tehran. But the churches are still active. Once in a while Assyrians who have left the area come back to their villages and pray in these churches. It is said that many Assyrians who moved from the villages left keys to the churches with their former Muslim neighbors, who keep an eye on the historical places of worship for them.
Vartan Vartanian, Citizen Journalist, Urmia