Every Iranian I meet on my trip is astonished to hear there’s a Sikh temple, or “gurdwara,” in Tehran. I wouldn’t know of it myself but for Iranian-American author Hooman Majd’s terrific book, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ, where the temple makes a cameo appearance in a juicy rumor about the antecedents of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini… but more about that later.
It’s taken me a week of false starts and red herrings to find the temple, hidden behind a high gate at the dead end of a quiet street. It’s hard to imagine that the motorcades of two Indian prime ministers—Atal Behari Vajpayee in 2001, and Manmohan Singh in 2012—were able to squeeze in here. The building itself looks more like a Soviet-designed office than a place of worship. But once in the inner sanctum, I feel like I’ve been transported to a gurdwara in almost any town in India, with only the beautiful Persian rugs signaling my real location.
Bahrinderjit Singh Sahni, a worshipper who’s sitting on one of the carpets with some of his friends, helping to count the take from the donations box, notes my mystified expression and laughs: “I’m sure you didn’t expect to find this here.”
It certainly is a surprise. Not a surprise that there are Sikhs in Tehran, because they are the most peripatetic of India’s peoples, and there is no corner of the globe where I would be taken aback to find a Sikh. And it stands to reason that there are gurdwaras all over the world—I’ve even been to the one in Helsinki, Finland. But I hadn’t expected to find one in the capital of the theocratic Islamic Republic, which has a well-earned reputation for intolerance of all religions other than Shia Islam. The United Nations’ special rapporteur on human rights has repeatedly accused Tehran of persecuting and prosecuting minorities for their faith. On Pew Research’s index of government restrictions on religion (pdf), Iran ranks alongside its nemesis, Saudi Arabia.
The gurdwara’s presence here shows that the picture is more complicated than it might seem. There are no Sikh temples in Riyadh. Iran’s minorities are not uniformly oppressed. Tehran has several churches: the Armenian St. Sarkis Cathedral is probably the most prominent. A small Jewish community is allowed to preserve some of their religious and cultural traditions, as are the remaining Zoroastrians.