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Christianity in Iran, a Brief History
Last Updated: October, 2009


This meant that their Catholicos was answerable to God only and not to Rome, Antioch, Alexandria or Constantinople. Six metropolitans and thirty conventional bishops from all over Persia elected Dadyeshu and he became the first Catholicos equal in rank and authority to any western Patriarchate. This gave the Iranian church the privilege of independent administration and freedom from outside powers. For a while King Yezdegerd II (439-457AD) welcomed the move and sent the Patriarch of the Persian Church on a mission to meet the Roman Emperor.
The king took a particular interest in the question of religion and studied all religions practiced in Iran. However, he remained a zealous Zoroastrian and at the end began persecuting both Christians and Jews. He tried to convert Armenians back into Zoroastrianism; he was defeated once, won again and took the leaders of the Armenian Church and leading members of the local aristocratic families hostage by carrying them off to Iran. The next successor Peroz (459-84) faced many disasters and wars and ended up a hostage. He persecuted the Jews and watched the Christian community going through internal conflict and doctrinal divisions.

In 486, the church made a decision that went against the radical ascetic tendency of the East and against the canon laws of the West. It rejected celibacy and affirmed the rights of all Christians to marry including ordained priests or even bishops. The texts mention social and cultural factors for this verdict. But the state also pressured the church to change its stance on celibate clergy. Zoroastrians held the unmarried clergy in contempt and considered celibacy as a cause of weakness in the empire. The virtue of virginity irritated them and there are accounts of nuns forced out of monasteries to be married and were put to death if refused. This movement against the enforced celibacy of the clergy did not last and the decision was reversed in the sixth century.

Between 450 and 500 the Nestorians, followers of the patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius, who created his own brand of Christianity, were persecuted in the Roman Empire. They fled to Persia and received protection. Nestorianism had been rejected at a meeting of Christians from all over at 431 in Ephesus (Turkey) and their bishops were forced to flee to Iran. From 488, during the reign of Kavad (Qubad), the whole Persian Church adopted Nestorianism at the synod of Jundaishapour (Syrian Beth Lapat) and henceforth the Catholicos of Seleucia became the patriarch of the Nestorian Church of Persia, Syria, China, and India. Nestorians believed in the doctrine of the two natures of Christ (human and divine) as opposed to Monophysite's belief in one sole nature. The Nestorian doctrine was popular in the Persian border districts; in the 'Persian School' of Edessa and it was also a way to eliminate the suspicion of conspiracy with the Romans.

The 'Persian School" was closed and transferred from Edessa now a Monophysite stronghold to Nisibis and became very famous. The first rector was the leprous Narses (Narsai) a prolific writer who enjoyed immense recognition. He was a great poet and his gift for language made him a master of Syriac idioms. His scholarship helped the church to be built on strong biblical and theological foundations and was later honored by the title ‘Rabban the Great'. The central aspect of the school was its spiritual discipline, Bible study and missionary work.
This university consisted of a single college, with the regular life of a monastery. Its rules are still preserved. At one time, it had more than 800 students. The fame of this theological seminary was so great that it inspired the Italian Pope to establish the Cassiodorus's monastery at Vivarium. Other less important schools existed at Seleucia and elsewhere, some in small towns and another major one at Jundaishapour. The most colorful Christian personality of the period was Barsauma who fought for the success of the Nestorian confession, founded the new school in Nisibis and was very active politically. He also rebelled against the leader of the Christian community Catholicos Babuwai.

Khusrau Anoshirvan's (531-79) wars against Byzantium (540-545) and Emperor Heraclius's victories once more prompted persecutions but peace resumed afterwards. The king once again guaranteed their freedom of worship and many celebrated Christians such as the philosopher Paul the Persian and members of the famous learned family Bukhtishu joined the royal court and Jundaishapour University. His successor Hormizd IV (570-90) also supported Christians. His mother was the Byzantine princess Maria, a Christian, and his support generated a backlash amongst the Zoroastrian clergy with violent results for Christians. Khusrau II, Parviz (579-90) regained his thrown from Bahram Chobeen with help from his father-in law Emperor Mauritius and remained loyal to the Christians. He paid honor to Virgin Mary and to a number of saints popular among the Syrians. His wife remained a devoted Jacobite and was immortalized in Persian literature as Queen Maryam in the love story "Khusrau and Sheereen". However, Khusrau Parviz soon turned against Christians when new wars broke out once again.

Khusrau Parviz sacked Jerusalem in 610, his Syrian troops looted the city for 3 days, massacred hundreds of Christians and religious relics—including a piece of the true cross (the one Jesus died on)—were carried off to Iran. The cross itself became a subject of dispute amongst Byzantium and Iran and eventually was returned as part of a peace treaty. The official teaching of the Nestorian Church at the time of Khusrau II is preserved in the treatise "De Unione", composed by the energetic monk Babai the Great.

In the next century, the Persian Church kept steadily increasing with a hierarchy of 230 bishops. Christians were scattered over Assyria, Babylonia, Chaldea, Arabia, Media, Khurasan and Persia proper, Turkistan, Merv and both shores of the Persian Gulf. The figure, 'Catholicos of Seleucia' became a powerful entity and the extent of his power rivaled that of the Byzantine patriarchs. On the whole, Christian missionaries were successful amongst all groups including high-ranking Iranians. There are accounts of Christians among the landlord classes in Mosul and the surrounding mountains. Khusrau III (630) was killed in an insurrection headed by a Christian whose father had been the chief financial officer of the realm. Some of the patriarchs of the Nestorian Church were converts, or sons of converts, from magi priesthood.

Monasteries were introduced in Mesopotamia by monks from Egypt in Fourth Century and spread quickly. Accounts by Mar Awgin relates that his monastery near Nisibis contained three hundred and fifty monks, while seventy-two of his disciples established each a monastery. Their numbers must have been very high, in addition to the numerous monasteries in Mesopotamia and the regions north of the Tigris, there were scattered monasteries in Persia and Armenia. Besides the cenobites, living in large communities, there were numerous solitaries living in caves or rude huts. Christian mysticism spread through monasteries and greatly influenced Islamic mysticism that emerged in the area after the Muslim conquest.
While numerous, the Iranian Christians did not organized into a national church. They differed from the Nestorians farther west, but not enough to gain ecclesiastical independence from Nestorianism. Syriac was the ecclesiastical and theological language and, even in Persia proper, little Christian literature was produced in Persian and the Scriptures had not been translated into Persian either.

A few works were produced in Middle Persian mainly to clarify the legal status of Christians in Iran. The Corpus Iuris by the Metropolitan Mar Ishobukht, dating from eighth century is one that has survived in the Syriac translation. Other Christian legal books that survived in Syriac include a text by the Metropolitan Mar Simeon and one written under Mar Aba in the reign of Khusrau I, Anoshirvan (531-539). Mar Aba was a convert from Zoroastrianism, and had studied Greek at Nisibis and Edessa and intended to prepare and publish a new version of the Old Testament—a task he did not finish. He died in prison and his successor was put to death. In 567, Ezechiel, a disciple of Mar Aba, was appointed Catholicos of Seleucia, under whom lived Bodh the periodeutes, who translated the Indian tales "Kalilah and Dimnah" into Syriac. The Indian literature was made popular in Iran through Jundaishapour University's translations of Indian texts.

With the growth of church, many differences arose between different confessions, and this is probably one more reason why the church did not evolve into a national Iranian church. The differences, conflicts and rivalries were significant and created many problems amongst the Christians and eventually helped their downfall and the total defeat of the Christian Church after the Muslim and Mongol conquests both in Iran and outside. Matters were further complicated when some converted from the Church of the East to the Roman Catholic denomination. This group was called Chaldeans who rejected Nestorianism at the 451 AD Council of Chalcedon near Constantinople. They adhered to their separate Patriarch in Syria and created a massive rift between Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Rome. Supported by Byzantine Emperors, they started persecuting other Christian sects and took control of many local churches.


Armenian and Assyrian Christians

Armenian and Assyrian churches made matters worse. Owing to the war with Persia, the Armenian Church did not have a delegate at the Chalcedon council. Nevertheless, they took side against the Nestorians. The Nestorians of Persia were quarreling with the Orthodox Church of Persia, which was in communion with the Church of Armenia and asked for their help. Armenians responded and their Catholicos Babgen called a meeting not only of his own bishops, but also those of the neighboring Christian countries of Georgia and Caucasian Albania.
They assembled at the headquarters of the Armenian Church in Dvin in the year 506. After long deliberations they officially proclaimed their adherence to the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus and rejected both Nestorians and Chaldeans. The result was the unintentional separation of the Armenian Church from the rest of Christendom, that is, of Greco-Roman Christianity.

Assyrian Christians were also divided into different confessions. Assyrians (Asuri) are one of the oldest surviving Christian groups and currently there is around 550,000 left and almost half still live in Iraq. They are descendents of the ancient Assyrians, a major Mesopotamian Empire from 2000 BC, destroyed in 612 BC by the Babylonians and Medes. After this collapse, the remnants of the Empire were called Urhai and later Edessa. Many Assyrians fled to the secluded mountains of Kurdistan; some settled in Urumiah in northwestern Persia, and others scattered throughout Asia Minor.

Presently they occupy the mountains and plains of southern Turkey, Northern and Northwestern Iran and many have emigrated to Europe and North America. They speak various dialects of Aramaic, a Semitic language, and have kept Chaldean as their religious language. According to their chronicles, they embraced Christianity in the first century AD Up until the 16th century, prior to penetration of the Jesuit and later Protestant missions in the Middle East, the Assyrians belonged to two ancient Christian denominations: The Church of the East and The Syrian Orthodox Church, popularly known as Jacobite. The split into two different denominations occurred in the 5th century AD and appears to have been politically motivated to secure a measure of safety for the Assyrian minority which was caught between two rival empires: Persian (the locus of the Church of the East) and Roman (the locus of the Syrian Orthodox Church). During the Sasanian era, the majority of the Assyrians in Iran adopted Nestorianism and this created a division between them and the Jacobite Assyrians.

Christianity spread in Iran and affected other sects such as Manicheans (Manavi) and persecutions eventually ended. Despite all improvements, Christians of Iran denied the Sasanian their support once the Arabs attacked the Empire. Their motive might have been a feeling of affinity with the Christian Arab tribes. However, once conquered, Christians, like Jews, became second-class citizens.


Christianity and Christians in Iran, Early Islamic Period

The conquest of Islam in seventh century put an end to freedom of religion throughout the area. All polytheistic and pagan religions were banned altogether with all the other Near and Far Eastern religions. Islam does not recognize these as true religions. All major and minor deities were eliminated as false gods. The house of Ka’bah contained many such deities (including Christian sacred items)—all were banished. The followers of all local gods became 'kofar' and were given the choice to either convert or die. Allah, a term used by local Christian tribes meaning god and a local deity, became the only sovereign god, the almighty. Islam was the last and the most superior of all religions and Muslim males were made superior to all others including Muslim females. Christianity and Judaism were accepted as the only other true religions and their holy scripts were accepted as such. However, despite a large number of Christian and Jewish tribes in Arabia, their freedom was substantially restricted and their legal status lowered.

They were given the right to practice their religion if they paid a discriminatory religious poll tax called 'jizya'. In the Quran, these people are called dhimmis (ahle zimmeh); later Zoroastrians of Iran were included as well. The Quran prohibits Muslims from becoming friends with Christians and Jews and the two are forbidden from any participation in building Mosques and that only Muslims can visit Mecca, once a multi-faith center. They could not marry Muslim women while Muslim men could marry women who were not Muslim. Muslims could not become slaves, but all others were subjected to slavery as purchased slaves or war booty. However, they [who were? Muslims or Christians? Get rid of the "They" and say either Muslims or Christians] were exempt from military service and forced labor. Later on, Christians and Jews were banned from riding horses while carrying arms and could not increase their numbers through conversion of others. They were segregated and their houses could not exceed those of the Muslims in height (the Jewish quarter in Kirman is an example of this restriction) and church bells were not to be heard. Dress codes were assigned to them and most ended up in segregated neighborhoods.

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