DASHT-E-CHALRAN–Iran (Associated Press)–Thousands of Armenia’s from around the world prayed at an ancient church near this remote hamlet in northwestern Iran Saturday in an annual pilgrimage honoring one of Jesus Christ’s twelve apostles.
About 10,000 Armenian Orthodox Christians–most from Iran but many from as far away as the US and Britain–participated in a prayer ceremony led by His Holiness Aram I–Catholicos of the Holy See of Cilicia.
The prayers were the climax of a pilgrimage made by thousands every year to Qareh Kelisa–or Black Church in the local Azeri language–a small stone church believed to date back to the late 6th or early 7th century AD.
Worshippers began arriving for the ceremony days ago–transforming this quiet–distant plateau into a virtual town of some 1,500 tents. Many of the pilgrims have spent their time praying at the church–whose pointed–conical towers are distinctly visible from a distance.
This is the first year the Iranian government has granted facilities such as electricity and relaxed its own Islamic rules to accommodate the worshippers.
Muslims weren’t allowed inside a huge area around the church cordoned off with ropes. Inside–women mingled freely with men–something not normally allowed in Iran. The women also weren’t required to cover themselves from head to toe with the hijab–the Islamic dress worn in public by Iranian women.
"I am very happy to be here and impressed by Iran’s hospitality," said Hagop Chakalian–who came to Iran from the US with a group of 20 other Americans–including his wife.
"Just the fact that we–a group of Americans–are in Iran means that things are changing in this country," said Chakalian–who is from San Francisco.
Iran’s social rules and two decades of strained relations with the U.S. have been easing since the 1997 election of the moderate President Mohammad Khatami.
The Qareh Kelisa–373 miles northwest of the Iranian capital–Tehran–was originally built of black and white stone in honor of St. Thaddaeus–also known in the New Testament as St. Jude.
Legend says St. Thaddaeus and another apostle–Simon the Zealot–were martyred in this part of present-day Iran.
The church was extensively damaged in the 13th century–and nearly all of it was rebuilt in the 17th century.
The Catholicos said on Monday that the Islamic Republic of Iran has never believed in discrimination against different religions–reported the IRNA news agency.
The Armenian leader who was visiting a painting exhibition said the exaltation of culture and art in Islamic Iran is the common wish of the followers of all divine religions.
He said Iranian Muslims and Armenia’s are treated equally and the existing laws govern all citizens on an equal footing.
Catholicos Aram I–who is currently visiting Iran’said Iranian Armenia’s have always tried to promote the name of Iran and share the achievemen’s of the country.
Elsewhere–the Armenian leader said there is a deep relationship between religion and art and added the combination of the two–especially in Islam and Christianity–is best visible.