By Tara Kangarlou
TEHRAN, Iran (CNN) -- Gold, red and green gift boxes decorated a large Christmas tree in a popular food court in the Islamic Republic's bustling capital of Tehran. Nativity scenes of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus added color to the windows of shops across this lively city, a small symbol of the growing number of Iranians embracing the Christian holiday.
Iran has a population that is 98% Muslim, and the government is widely recognized for its repressive rulings, censorship and efforts to cut ties with the United States and the West, but more Iranians are openly celebrating Christmas and expressing their desires to be part of the global celebration.
On Christmas, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad released a statement praising Jesus as "the messenger of humanism and grace" and noted, "I believe that the sole way to save the man from severe moral, social and cultural crises is returning to the exalted teachings of the great messengers of God."
While Jesus is recognized as a prophet in Islam, it is uncommon for Islamic countries to celebrate his birth, particularly with Western trappings.
"For us, Christmas may not really be about its religious symbolism, but rather, we would take any excuse to celebrate and create happy moments and go against the government's repressive orders," said Meshkat, a 29-year-old engineer who asked not to use his last name because of the government's crackdown on those who openly criticize the regime.
Meshkat and other Muslims said they perceive Christmas and other Western holidays such as Halloween and Valentine's Day as a way to bypass the confines of the regime and the economic toll taken on Iranians by international sanctions.
The Iranian government is a "repressive theocracy which has an active campaign of vilification and prosecution of any minority religious activities," said Katrina Lantos Swett, chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. She commended Iranian youth's efforts to blow the "siren on freedom of expression and human rights in Iran."
Iran is home to approximately 200,000 Christians, 90% of whom are Armenian, according to Minority Rights Group international.
For 50 years, Gorgin Haghverdian has lived and worked in the same neighborhood in Tehran. He has been a successful business owner for more than three decades, selling refrigerators, and is an active member of the small Armenian Christian community in Iran.
"Ever since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, regardless of the challenges, the Armenian prelacy has created a mutual and respectful relationship with the Islamic regime," Haghverdian said.
Yet he suggests that despite the community's freedom in practicing its faith, this minority group still faces some challenges in the post-Islamic Revolution era.
"Even though our kids can go to universities and have the same educational rights, we still can't be employed by the government or any organization, company or entity that's operated by the government, such as public banks, corporations and various agencies," said Haghverdian, who appreciates the community's freedom in a country oftentimes accused of marginalizing religious minorities.
"People are warm and loving, no matter Muslim or Christian, I know for a fact, if I go down the street to buy a Christmas tree, I'll see five Armenian-Christians, but I can see eight Muslims who are as excited to buy the tree. They just want to be happy and joyous," he said.
Despite the expressions of Christmas celebrations, the Islamic regime stifles acts of religious convergence or the spread of any other beliefs than Islam, according to watchdog groups like U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Lantos Swett pointed to "thousands" of cases of discrimination against religious minorities like the Baha'is and others who express their own beliefs or any belief besides what she calls the theocratic regime of the Iranian government.
While people in Iran are freely purchasing Christmas trees and hosting Christmas parties, the Iranian regime has shown zero tolerance for apostasy, or renouncing and leaving Islam. It is subject to capital punishment.
In late September, Saeed Abedini, a young U.S. citizen who is a Christian convert, was arrested during a visit to Iran for openly preaching his Christian beliefs.
In 2010, Youcef Nadarkhani, a Christian pastor who coverted from Islam, was detained and sentenced to death, charged with "evangelizing Muslims" and apostasy. Later, the country's semi-official news agency Fars reported that Nadarkhani faced several charges of rape and extortion. He was released in September.
Haghverdian emphasized that the arrests have nothing to do with the Armenian-Christians and those officially accepted as Christians by the regime. "The regime is against any person who suddenly decides to create a religious following and most importantly renounce Islam," he said.
Touraj Daryaee, a Persian Iranologist and historian at the University of California-Irvine, thinks many young Iranians are secretly converting to Christianity in recent years as a way to distance themselves from the regime's harsh Islamic practices.
"Christianity seems to be a peaceful religion with a message of love and peace. That is so different from what they have experienced as militant Islam right now, so it is effective," Daryaee said.
Despite the volatile relationship between Iran and the West, celebrating Christmas, even in its most basic secular forms, shows a section of Iranians yearning to belong to the international community, Meshkat said.
"The Iranian people want to do anything to show that we go side by side and step by step with the rest of the world, and we don't want to be an isolated nation, and we would even celebrate their ceremonies to prove this point," he said.
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