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Christianity in Iran, a Brief History
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Last Updated: October, 2009
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Under the Safavid kings, the Christians of Azerbaijan and Transcaucasia suffered greatly from the wars between the Ottomans and Persians. Both banks of the Aras were generally in the hands of the Persians. Some of the shahs were tolerant, and the Christians prospered; some overtaxed them. The last, Shah Sultan Husayn, oppressed them: he repealed the law of retaliation, whereby a Christian could exact equivalent punishment from a Muslim criminal. He enacted that the price of a Christian's blood should be the payment of a load of grain. Subsequent periods were as bad. Julfa was subjected to great suffering at the time of the invasion of the Afghan leader Mahmood. The city was captured and a ransom of seventy thousand tomans and fifty of the fairest and best-born maidens exacted. The grief of the Armenians was so heartrending that many of the Afghans were moved to pity and returned the captives. When Mahmood subsequently became ill, the Armenian priests were called in to pray over him and exorcise the evil spirit.

The history of Christianity in Iran enters a new phase with the attempts by the Nestorians to join the Catholic Church and the arrival of Christian missionaries in Iran. In 1233 the Nestorian Catholicos sent an orthodox profession of faith to Pope Gregory IX and was admitted to unite with the Church of Rome. The subsequent patriarchs confirmed this union and eventually Nestorianism was renounced and several thousand Persian Nestorians became Catholics and changed their name to Chaldean Christians and, because of Turkish persecution, chose Urumiah in Persia as the center for the patriarch. The following Christian leaders all remained faithful to Rome with their patriarchal see at Urumiah and Khosrowa. By the 17th century, there were some 200,000 Christians in Iran; however, as of 1670, the relations between the Persian patriarch and Rome were severed again, mainly due to pressure by the Christians who had remained loyal to Nestorianism. Though there were attempts by some patriarchs to re-establish links with Rome the gap between the two widened.

The Nestorians finally completely severed their relations with Rome, and transferred their patriarchal residence from Urumiah to Kotchanes, in Kurdistan (Iraq). Meanwhile the Chaldeans, who remained faithful to the Catholic Faith, selected an independent Catholic patriarch, Joseph I, who was confirmed by Pope Innocent and was given the title of "Patriarch of Babylon", i.e., of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, the ancient patriarchal see of the Nestorian Church. In 1695 he resigned and went to Rome, where he died shortly afterwards. His successors were Joseph II, III, IV, V, and VI, all belonging to the same family of Mar Denha. They governed the Chaldean Church during the eighteenth century, and their patriarchal residence was transferred from Persia to Mesopotamia - to Diarbekir, Mosul, and Amida successively. By 1900 the Chaldean patriarch of Babylon had 5 archdioceses and 10 dioceses, with around 100,000 followers and moved their center to Baghdad.

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Christian Missionaries in Iran, 19th Century

The first missionaries arrived at the time of the Moguls in the 13th and 14th centuries both in Central Asia and in Persia and did not succeed. In the early part of the seventeenth century, the kings of Persia sought friendly relations with Europe. This gave a new impetus to Catholic missionary enterprise, and Carmelite, Minorite, and Jesuit missionaries were sent and were well received by Shah Abbas the Great. He allowed them to establish missionary stations all through his dominion and Isfahan became a popular center for missionary work. Soon others such as the Augustinians and Capuchins arrived. They enlarged their missionary field, extending it to Armenians and for the first time openly to Muslims. The most distinguished of these missionaries was Father de Rhodes of Avignon, known as 'The Saint' who was so popular that the Shah, his court and many ordinary people in Isfahan attended his funeral in 1646. Under Shah Sultan Husayn and later on Nadir Shah persecutions started again. The missionaries were forced to flee, and thousands of Christians were compelled either to migrate or to apostatize.

The second epoch of Catholic missionary work in Persia begins in 1840 by the Lazarists and started with a French civil servant Eugene Boré, a fervent Catholic. He was sent to Persia in 1838 on a scientific mission by the French Academy and the Minister of Public Instruction. He founded four schools, two in Tabriz and Isfahan for the Armenians, and two in Urumiah and Salmas for the Chaldeans. They were joined later on by the French Sisters of Charity and other priests who took over the schools founded by Boré. The establishment of a new French representative at the Persian Court helped and the Lazarists were permitted by the Persian Government to continue their work unmolested and one of their priests, Father Luzel, became a great favorite with Mizra Aghasi, the prime minister at the Qajar court.

They built a new seminary and a large new church and trained new priests by teaching them Latin, French, Syriac, and Armenian, as well as theology. Besides the seminary, two other colleges opened: one for boys and the other for girls, the latter that was under the care and direction of the Sisters of Charity. To these were soon added one hospital and one orphan asylum, where all including Muslims were admitted. Nasrir al-Din Shah allocated a yearly allowance of 200 tomans ($400) towards the maintenance of the two institutions. Soon after, two more hospitals opened, one at Urumiah and one at Khusrowa. By late 19th century most missionaries expanded to Tehran and established schools, churches and hospitals at the capital. The missionary schools were instrumental in providing modern thought and education for the Iranians and they were the first who established girls' schools in Iran.

Catholics were not the only Christian group interested in missionary work in Iran. The earliest Protestant missionaries; Moravians arrived in 1747 but had to withdraw because of political disturbances. The next missioner was Henry Martin, a chaplain in the British army in India, who, in 1811, went to Shiraz and completed his Persian translation of the New Testament in this city. The German missionary Reverend Pfander arrived in 1829 and in his famous books Mohammedanism and "Mizan-al-Haag" (The Balance of Truth), argued in favor of the superiority of Christianity over Islam. American Protestant missionaries arrived during the 1830s. They established a school in Urumiah but like most other non-Catholic missionaries lost many adherents to the Catholic missionaries.

The first successful Protestant missionary attempt took place in 1834, when the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions (Congregational) commissioned Justin Perkins and Asahel Grant (1835) and their wives to establish a mission among the Persian Nestorians. Between 1834 and 1871, some fifty-two missionaries were sent by this organization to Iran with several physicians. In 1870 their work was transferred to the Board of Missions of the American Presbyterian Church and the mission was divided into those of the Eastern and Western Persia—the former including: Tabriz, Tehran, Hamadan, Rasth, Ghazwin, and Kirmanshah, the latter including: the Province of Azerbaijan (Urumiah, Khosrowa) and parts of Kurdistan, Caucasus, and Armenia. By 1910, the American missionaries managed to establish 62 schools and 4 hospitals educating and providing health care for both Christians and Muslims. More missionaries arrived from other countries including Russia and they managed to convert several thousand Nestorians to the Russian Orthodox Church. The converts were motivated to seek Russia's protection against sporadic persecutions by the Muslim rulers of Iran and religious authorities.

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Christianity and Christians in Iran, Modern Era

The end of the 19th century is the beginning of fundamental changes in Iran and the start of the Constitutional Revolution. Christian partisans such as Yephrem Khan, his daughter Setareh along with other minorities participated in the movement. They were instrumental in forming the first multiethnic Secret Society of 1905, which began the debate on political change. Jews, Christians, Baha’i and Zoroastrians fought hard with the constitutionalists to form a National Consultative Majlis (parliament) instead of an Islamic Majlis as demanded by the religious hierarchy. Along with other religious minorities, they succeeded in their efforts to ratify laws that gave equality to Muslim and non-Muslim (male) citizens in 1907 and defined a new concept of Nationality that was not based on religious origins (with the exception of Baha’i who were not recognized). The constitution of 1906 put an end to the segregation of religious minorities, but it was at the time of Reza Shah and Mohammad Reza Shah that they were able to integrate freely with the larger Iranian society. According to this constitution Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians had the right to elect one delegate each to the Majlis, but they could not participate in elections of other delegates. The constitution also prohibited non-Shi’ite Muslims from becoming a member of the Government. This was ignored by the Pahlavi regime and there were non-Muslim high government officials—even Baha’i—by the 1970s.

The Islamic Revolution of 1979 guarantees religious freedom of Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians. According to the new Constitution, the religious minorities are permitted to follow their own religious laws in matters of marriage, divorce and inheritance. The constitution also made Shari’a the legal code and therefore gender and religious discriminations are an integral part of the system. Baha’i once again are not recognized at all; Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians each have their own representative at the Parliament and are not legally forbidden from employment in the government sector. But since the authorities only employ Muslims and a 'Shari’a test' is required, these people are in reality once again barred from working for the government.

Iran's indigenous Christians include an estimated 250,000 Armenians, some 32,000 Assyrians, and a small number of Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant Iranians converted by missionaries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Armenians are predominantly urban and are concentrated in Tehran and Isfahan; smaller communities exist in Tabriz, Arak, and other cities. They are the largest Christian community in Iran and their leader Archbishop Manukian resides in Tehran.

A majority of the Assyrians is also urban, although there are still several Assyrian villages in the Lake Urmiah region. Although Armenians and Assyrians have encountered individual prejudice, they have not been subjected to mass persecutions, with the exception of the murder of a few priests during the last decade. Some were Evangelical Christians who had converted from Islam into Christianity. Conversion from Islam into other religions is forbidden in Islam and is punishable by death. Such converts are persecuted in Iran and their underground churches are routinely attacked and members arrested. In the twentieth century, Christians in general have participated in the economic and social life of Iran. The Armenians, especially, achieved a relatively high standard of living and maintained a large number of parochial primary and secondary schools.

Since the revolution, the administration of the Christian schools has been a source of tension between Christians and the government. The Ministry of Education has insisted that the principals of such schools be Muslims that all religious courses should be taught in Persian, that any Christian literature classes have government approval, and that all female students observe hejab inside the schools.
In the 20th century, a nationalistic movement amongst all Assyrians started in the region and there have been attempts by different Assyrian groups to reunite. The patriarchal seat of the Church of the East since World War II has been moved to Chicago, U.S.A. Civic organizations have emerged in both "Nestorian" and "Jacobite" centers with publications to promote national unity. During the First World War, the Assyrians joined the Allies in the hope of attaining sovereignty in their ancient homeland in case of an Allied victory. This antagonized the Turks and the Persians, and resulted in the massacre of great numbers of Assyrians and their uprooting from their homes in Persia and Turkey. Since the revolution, like other Iranians, massive immigration of Christians has reduced their numbers. Nevertheless, many have remained in Iran and still participate in the social and economic activities of the country despite restrictions.

Most Christians in Iran celebrate Christmas according to the traditions of the Eastern Church. As of the first of December, they start what is known as the "Little Fast’’ by avoiding eating animal products. The Eastern Christians celebrate Christmas on January 6th, according to the Julian calendar, but many churches have services on December 25th as well. The Christmas dinner is called the "Little Feast" and a traditional dish is a chicken stew called harasa, though turkey dinners are becoming popular as well. Gifts were generally not exchanged, but children received new clothes for the occasion; however, gift giving has become a routine and children enjoy both gifts and new clothes. Lighting candles, decorating the Christmas tree and singing hymns, marks the holiday and family and friends are visited.

The Assyrian New Year is celebrated on April 1st, Kha B'Nissan, based on ancient pre-Christian traditions of Assyria. However as Christians, Assyrians celebrate the major Christian holidays including Easter and Christmas according to the Eastern traditions. Easter is seen as the theologically most important holiday as it commemorates the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Consequently, it is called “Eida Gura” or big holiday. Christmas, commemorating the birth of Christ, is called “Eida Sura” or small holiday. Other Christians celebrate the season according to the traditions of the Western Church. New Year's Eve was celebrated with grandeur in Iran before the revolution and all major hotels had huge and elaborate parties open to all including Muslims. Since the revolution, Christians can only celebrate New Years in their own clubs and neighborhoods and officially Muslims are barred from participating; nevertheless, many still join their Christian friends at private parties for a time of merrymaking and joy.

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Recommended readings:

  • Eliz Sanasarian Religious Minorities in Iran (Cambridge Middle East Studies), 2000.
  • Zarin Behravesh Pakizegi. History of the Christians in Iran. Distributed by Behzad Pakizegi.
  • Eden Naby. Assyrian Christian architecture of Iran: A photo exhibit.
    E Naby, 1998.
  • Fred Strickert. Christian leaders testify to new expressions of religious freedom in Iran.
    (Christianity and the Middle East). : An article from: Washington Report on Middle East Affairs [HTML].
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