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

Courts of 'Shari’a' became the only legal vessel between the Muslims and non-Muslims and the Quran gave Muslim males superior legal status. For instance, if a Jew or a Christian kills a Muslim, there is both ghesas (physical punishment) and deyeh (monetary compensation). If a Muslim kills a Jew or a Christian, there is no ghesas and they only pay deyeh, which is half of what the Jew or the Christian has to pay. There is no punishment for killing kofar (non-believers) or mortad (converters from Islam into other faiths). In short, all except the Muslim males became second-class citizens (dhimmis). The so-called 'Covenant of Ummar' made religious discrimination an institution. Ummar believed Arabia should be purely Muslim and Arab. The large Christian and Jewish communities of Arabia mainly in Najran, Khaybar, Hijaz and Medina were expelled to the conquered territories and their properties confiscated. His bias, brutality and discriminatory actions contributed to his assassination by a Persian Christian slave (Nasrani).

The situation worsened by the time of Harun al-Rashid in eighth century AD. The overwhelming population of the area at the time was Christian, Zoroastrian and Jewish. Their houses of worship were destroyed; they could not build any new ones; and jizya was increased substantially. Payment of the jizya was furthermore to be accompanied by signs of humiliation and recognition of personal inferiority. On payment of the tax, a seal, generally of lead, was affixed to the payee's person as a receipt and as a sign of the status of dhimma. By the time of Caliph al- Motevakel in 9th century, non-Muslims were all excluded from employment in government sectors, banned from Muslim schools, forced to live in closed quarters and to wear distinct clothing and colored ribbons to indicate they were non-Muslims.

Iran being part of the Greater Muslim Empire was subjected to the same rules. Since non-Muslims were forced out of the government institutions, they went into trade and banking. A wealthy class of Christian merchants emerged with cash, but little political influence. Christian artisans, including goldsmiths and jewelers, found employment in the large cities. In his account of the mission of the Nestorian monks, Thomas of Marga relates that the Patriarch Timothy sent his missionary with a company of merchants who were journeying together to Mugan (the plain of Mugan?) on the River Aras (Araxes). Muslim treatment of the religious minorities varied in accordance with the policies of the caliphs and attitudes of different governors.

While the Umayyad governor of Iran Hajjaj was ruthless and extremely biased, others were more lenient and did not follow all the discriminatory rules. There were many Christian, Zoroastrian and Jewish Philosophers, physicians, scientists, engineers, musicians and court administrators in the first centuries of the Muslim Empire. Later on, they all gradually converted or were forced out of government services. The coming of Abbasid improved the position of the dhimmi for a while, especially during the reign of al-Mansur. He was a devoted follower of the sciences and supported the great translation movement of the eighth century AD. Initiated by the Syriac, Greek, and Persians to preserve ancient knowledge, the movement started in Syria and flourished in Baghdad.

Scientists and intellectuals from all over the Middle East got together. Centers of learning were created and thousands of books were translated into Arabic from Greek, Hebrew, Persian and other languages. Bukhtyishu and Masuya (Masawaih) learned families were amongst such people. Both families had served at Jundaishapour University for generations and were instrumental in setting up the Adudi Hospital in Baghdad. Iranian Jews were writing dari (new Persian) in Hebrew characters, whereas Christians used Syriac script to write Persian. The position of non-Muslims varied with time, which is shown in the surviving Christian works and chronicles.

John of Damascus (ca. 675-749) and Nestorian Patriarch Timothy I (779-823 or 778-821) are amongst Christian scholars whose works have survived. John wrote the Fountain of Knowledge, a massive work that contained a section "On Heresies." In this chapter, he views Islam not as a new religion but as a heretical schism from Christianity. He also viewed Islam as a threat, pointing out while writing Fountain of Knowledge that a nearby bishop was executed for preaching against Islam. He refers to Muslims as “Ishmaelites” and calls the new religion a forerunner of the Antichrist. He concludes that the Christian veneration of the cross is no more an idolatry than the Muslim veneration of the Ka’bah and criticizes polygamy practiced by Muslims.

Patriarch Timothy's dialogue with Abbasid caliph al-Mahdi has become a classic. Al-Mahdi asked him how intelligent people like him could believe in God having a son. He coolly agreed that the statement was a blasphemy: "Who would say such a thing?" Nevertheless, he continued, "Christ is the Son of God"-not, however, "in the carnal way." The debate went on for two days. Such literature indicates the doctrinal differences between the two, which added to the military and political conflicts created by the Muslim conquest of the entire Eastern Christendom.

The Conquest of Jerusalem in AD 640 resulted in the control of the holiest Jewish/Christian city by the Muslims and has caused never ending feuds ever since between all three faiths. While some sites were preserved, other major Jewish and Christian holy sites were occupied to build Mosques. Stories about Prophet Muhammad's Ascension (Miraj) in Jerusalem were used to justify such actions. The results were centuries of Crusade wars between European Christians to defend Christendom and Muslim rulers of the area and the occupation of the city by the Crusaders in AD 1099 and Muslim conquest of Jerusalem in 1187. Muslim rule of Christian territories ended missionary activity in the area and compelled Christians to expand into India and the Orient.

The Nestorian Church became dominant in Iran. Though the church did not grow further in Iran, they gained many converts in India and China. Ctesiphon, the Persian capital, was totally destroyed during the Arab invasion and the Catholicos seat was moved in 762 to Baghdad. The fate of the Christians in the Muslim territories depended on the will and the mood of the ruling Muslim dynasties. While many rulers were tolerant, others were harsh and intolerant. At the turn of the millennium, the Caliph al-Hakim turned against Christian and Jews, torturing and killing thousands of people—including Muslims. He forced all Christians to follow strictly the dress code imposed earlier, and to wear a five-pound cross around their neck. He forced Jews to wear a heavy bell around their necks, and dismissed all non-Muslims from administrative offices. Al-Hakim turned loose the Egyptian mob to demolish Coptic Churches and Jewish synagogues, walled off a Jewish street, leaving all inside to die of starvation, and also walled and sealed the doors of a public bath for women, entombing alive all those who were inside. He banned all women from appearing on the streets of Egypt for any reason. With Caliph al-Hakim's death, toleration returned. The center of Coptic Christianity shifted from Alexandria to the new capital of Cairo and churches were rebuilt.


Christianity under the Turkic rulers of Iran

The Turkish invasion of Iran and the later Seljuk and Ghaznavi rule was detrimental to the Christians. The Turks were fighting Christian Byzantium and suspected Christians in their territories of having affiliations with Byzantium. The conquest of the eastern territories of Seljuks of Iran by the invading Qara-Khiatai from Northern China made the situation easier for Christians in Balkh and neighboring areas. The Chinese ruler of this group Gur-Khan was a Manichean and as such, he had sympathies for Christians, since Manicheans incorporated many Christian elements including Jesus himself in their religion.

On the whole, life for Christians was not very different under the Turks and all regulations with respect to dhimmis were still applied. There were many Christian communities in all the major cities, notably Baghdad and Nishapur. Benjamin of Tudela who traveled in Iran after the death of Sultan Sanjar, the Seljuk ruler, mentions Christian and Jewish communities throughout the Iranian territories.

The Crusades made the situation worse for the Christians in general. Local Christians were caught between two equally hostile forces during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Muslims came to hate all Christians in the Muslim world, while Latin Christians considered the Eastern Christians heretics. During the Crusades, Latin Christians came to control the Holy Land, but prevented the local Christians from going on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Saddi, the grand master of Persian prose and poetry, was at one point taken prisoner during the Crusades and ended up as a slave/war captive. A friend bought him and then forced him to marry his daughter rescued him. Saddi complains a lot about this woman in his writings.


Christianity and Christians in Iran, the Mogul Period

In 1258, the Moguls conquered Baghdad—the center of the Muslim Empire. This change was for a time favorable to Christianity as the rulers openly declared themselves Christians or were partial to Christianity. However, under later Mongol rule and, also due to Tamerlane's (Taymur) invasion of Persia, many churches and mosques were destroyed and thousands of Christians and Muslims were killed.

Before embracing Islam, the early Mogul rulers were a lot more tolerant towards all religions and employed many Christians including a Chinese Nestorian, Yabh-alaha III, who eventually became the Catholicos of the Syrian Church in 1281. The new Patriarch was a native of Western China; he ruled the Church through a stormy period of seven reigns of Mogul kings. He had the joy of baptizing some of them and there were many Christian women, wives and children of the Khans in the royal court, and for a time he hoped that they would form an alliance with the Christians of Europe against the Muslims. The conversion of the Mogul rulers to Islam ended such expectations.

Some of the Il-Khan leaders were also favorable towards Christians. One of the leaders of the late 13th century, Arghun, sought a military alliance with the  Christian West in his wars against Mamluk rulers of Egypt. In 1285, he sent a letter to Rome and later an emissary to the Pope along with a Nestorian Christian called Isa Kelemechi to start negotiations. How the Christians were treated depended on the politics of the day. The scholar Ibn-Taghribirdi praises the last Il-Khan ruler, Abu-Said, for demolishing Christian Churches. This was partly due to the establishment of the first archbishopric of Sultaniyeh by Pope John XII. Francis of Perugia was the first archbishop and was succeed in 1323 by William Adam, who amongst other duties protected the Christian Armenians against their Muslim neighbors. During the last five centuries, Christianity in Iran has been a tolerated but oppressed and despised faith.


Christians and Christianity in Iran, The Safavid Era

For a period of two hundred years, from the invasions of Tamerlane until the accession of Shah Abbas, the Safavid ruler (1582), Christian history in Iran is almost a blank. In 1603, some Armenian chiefs appealed to Shah Abbas for protection against the Ottoman Turks. The Shah invaded Armenia and devastated the area to stop Ottomans from gaining access to provisions. Armenians were driven before the Persian soldiery to the banks of the Aras River, near Julfa. Their cities and villages were depopulated and were allocated in forced settlements. Convents were plundered, and their inmates driven out. Thousands of captives were forced to cross the Aras without proper transports. Thousands died and two Armenian chiefs were beheaded to hasten the progress and their beautiful women were carried off to Persian harems.

Only around 5,000 made it to Julfa in Isfahan, where they were granted protection and privileges, such as the freedom to practice their faith in their own segregated neighborhoods. More were followed and there were also some Georgians who were forced to settle in Iran as well. Both Armenians and Georgians were scattered through Central Persia, and some of their descendants still live in villages and towns in Isfahan and in the Bakhtiyari region. A colony of seven thousand was planted at Ashraf, in Mazanderan, where the majority died of malaria; the surviving population was sent back to Armenia later on. The Armenians were master craftsmen and artists and their colony at Julfa prospered and became wealthy, though they were not given any political power.

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