Christmas has unique memories for international journalist Christiane Amanpour, the ABC News Global Affairs Anchor. As a small child, she remembers wonderful times, “my family with a Christmas tree and presents and a family gathering.”
Christiane Amanpour. Photo by Shawn Baldwin, ABC News
But her father was Muslim. Her mother was Catholic. They lived in Iran. Little Christiane grew up in a clash of worlds – yet it was quieter than today. “We had Christmas off from school, but,” she notes, “remember, Iran was not yet an Islamic republic.”
During her childhood, the former Persian Empire was one of the most diverse, modern and secular Islamic nations of the Cold War era, led by an iron-fisted dictator whose family had been put in power by the CIA and was one of America’s top allies – the controversial Shah of Iran.
Amanpour – now a regular on the ABC nightly news as well as Chief International Correspondent for CNN and the nightly host of her own interview program on CNN International – remembers an Iran vastly different in the 1960s and 1970s from today’s terror-exporting, nuke-developing Islamic republic whose president annually vows before the United Nations to destroy both Israel and the United States as he ushers in Armageddon and welcomes the return of the Hidden Imam – Shi’ite Islam’s child Messiah.
“We had a Christmas tree, we decorated, we had Christmas celebration,” she recalls. Is observance of the holiday tolerated in today’s rigid Iranian Islamic society? “It may not be open and allowed,” she admits, “but in the privacy of your own home, you do what you will.”
Did her very Christian-sounding first name cause problems as a child? After all, “Christiane” is not at all Iranian nor Islamic.
“It really didn’t,” she says. “My mother is Catholic, my father Muslim and so I’ve grown up with both faiths – and I happen to be married to a man who’s Jewish. So, I have all three faiths running right through my immediate family. It taught me tolerance. It taught me that all three faiths can exist together because we have so much in common.”
Today as Iranian-built rockets pound Israeli neighborhoods, as Israeli helicopter gunships rain death and destruction on Gaza, as civil war rages just miles away in Syria and Iran’s leaders are blamed for
arming many of the combatants, is tolerance still possible?
Filming the ABC Special at Luxor Temple. Photo by Shawn Baldwin, ABC News
“We have more in common than what divides us,” says Amanpour. “But, of course, over recent years, what divides us is more in the forefront — and is being used, I think, by those who would use religion as a political weapon.
“I grew up in Iran until the Islamic revolution in 1979 and it was not yet fundamentalist. The regime was not one that used Islam as the law of the land. Women were free. There was poverty and the difficulties of the oppression that poverty brings. Also it wasn’t a democracy.”
Her parents sent her to boarding school when she was 11, but still she came home for holidays.
“For me it was not difficult,” she recalls. “We went to church, the faiths were respected and actually, you know what, there are still Christian churches in Iran and there are still Jewish Synagogues” – although thousands of Iranian Christians and Jews have since escaped the country. Her own family fled amid the chaos of the Iranian Revolution and the imposition of strict Muslim law administered by ulema – the Shi’ia clergy from local mosques – and rigidly enforced by religious police. Brief trials lacking defense attorneys, juries, transparency or opportunity for the accused to defend themselves were held by shari’a-enforcing Islamic judges. Amnesty International documented 2,946 executions in the first two years for everything from drug and sexual offenses to “corruption on earth.”
But this was not the Iran that Amanpour grew up in. Hers was an Iran rich in thousands of years of history and culture and diversity.
“One of the things that I find phenomenal is that it was, in fact, an ancient Persian king, Cyrus the Great who defeated the Babylonians and enabled Jews to come back and to rebuild their temple in Jerusalem.” Indeed, that story is told in the Bible’s books of Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah.
“This is very important,” says Amanpour. “Today people forget. People don’t focus on that kind of stuff because so much of the division that separates us. The differences have dominated our consciousness.”