ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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Christianity in Iran

Christianity continues to be a strong spiritual force in a land of much turmoil.

Events of the past year and a half have focused American attention upon Iran as never before. The overthrow of the Shah, the seizure of the United States embassy and the formation of an Islamic Revolutionary government under the spiritual leadership of the Ayatollah Khomeini have had an immense impact upon the course of domestic policy and foreign affairs.

Lost in the daily headlines is the fact that Iran, unlike Saudi Arabia, is not a completely Muslim country but also has populations of Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians. Although these compose less than one percent of the total population today, each group has made its own unique contribution to the history of the nation.

The Zoroastrians are the oldest religious community. Members of this faith still practice the religion of the ancient Persians as revealed to them by the prophet Zoroaster, who lived in the seventh century before Christ. They worship Ahuramazda, the god of light, who created the universe and placed man in it. For centuries Persian rulers promoted Zoroastrianism as the official imperial religion, and when Christianity came to Iran it faced considerable opposition from the Zoroastrians. Several persecutions, decreed by fourthand fifth-century rulers, especially Shapur Il, produced thousands of Christian martyrs.

Despite the differences between the two faiths, Zoroastrian influences can be found in Christianity. Zoroastrian priests are known as magi, and it is they who are portrayed in Matthew’s Gospel as the first Gentiles to worship the Infant Jesus. The word ‘paradise,’ which comes from the Persian language, has been adopted by Christians as a synonym for heaven. A paradise was originally the garden park of the Persian shahs, filled with all varieties of flowers and animals. Early Christians could think of no more beautiful place on earth; for them, a paradise served as a picture of heavenly bliss.

The vast majority of Zoroastrians converted to Islam after the Arab conquest of Persia in the seventh century after Christ. Some emigrated to India where they are now called Parsees, so that only several thousand remain in modern Iran.

The first native Christians of Persia appeared in apostolic times. Their present descendants are those people who belong either to the Chaldean Church or to the Church of the East, whose members are now commonly called Assyrians.

Since Persia was never a part of the Roman Empire – indeed, it was Rome’s perennial enemy – the first Persian converts called themselves members of the Church of the East to distinguish themselves from Christians who belonged to the churches in the Roman Empire, collectively known as the Church of the West. The first Christian missionaries to Persia came from Eastern Syria, from the region around Edessa (modern Urfa in Turkey), so that the Persians looked to the East Syrians for direction, adopted the Syriac liturgy as their own, and were even content to be called Syrians.

In the fifth century, relations between the Church of the East and the Church of the West were unfortunately severed because of doctrinal problems. A patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius, began teaching that Jesus Christ was a human person, not a divine person who had taken on human nature. This position was also held at the theological school of Edessa. In 431, the Third Ecumenical Council of the Christian Church convened at Ephesus and pronounced Nestorius’ doctrine heretical. He was deposed, and the teachers at Edessa migrated into Persia rather than submit to the Council’s condemnation. Here their prestige was so great that Persian Christians easily adopted their theology, thus cutting themselves off from the rest of Christendom.

During the next few centuries the Iranian church, despite its isolation, survived intact under the leadership of its chief bishop, the catholicos of the capital, Seleucia-Ctesiphon. He ruled in conjunction with some thirty bishops scattered from the Caspian area to the Persian gulf.

When the Arabs defeated the Zoroastrian shah in the seventh century, the Christian position improved. The Eastern Christians were the favorites of the Islamic rulers, and when Baghdad became the capital of the whole Islamic world in the eighth century, Caliph al-Mansur invited the catholicos to move to his residence. Thousands of Christians followed their leader to Baghdad where a section of the city was exclusively inhabited by them. Christianity expanded and prospered during the next few centuries. Missionaries of the Church of the East visited China, Korea and India and established churches in cities all along the great silk route of Inner Asia. Over two hundred dioceses existed.

This period of growth ended with the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century. Although the Mongol khans were tolerant of Christians, the destruction caused by their attack and the subsequent impoverishment of the Near East struck the members of the Church of the East as well as the Muslims. A combination of forces including decline in population, economic stagnation, political anarchy and social pressure to convert to Islam drastically cut into the number of Iranian Christians.

It was at this time that the first Latin missionaries reached Iran, Dominican friars sent by the Avignon Popes to make contact with the khans. One even became bishop of Sultaniyeh, near modern Tabriz, but they made few Iranian converts.

Catholicism made its first real impression upon Iran in the sixteenth century, when a group within the Church of the East refused to accept the election of a catholicos whom they considered unfit for the office. By this time the catholicate had become a hereditary position, passing from uncle to nephew within the confines of a single family. The nominee of the dissenters, the abbot John Sulaqa, was persuaded to seek the Western Church’s approbation in order to legitimize his election. He made his way to Jerusalem and then to Rome, where Pope Julius III, convinced of his orthodoxy, personally consecrated him patriarch of Mosul on April 9, 1553. This was the first direct intervention of Rome into the affairs of the Iranian Church, and Sulaqa was the first Eastern patriarch ever to be consecrated by a Roman Pope. Catholic authorities gave the name Chaldean to the church in order to distinguish it from its heretical parent.

Sulaqa returned to the Near East and anxiously set about creating a separate church with its own hierarchy. Enemies appeared on all sides and the patriarch was killed after only two years in office, but it was too late to extinguish the Chaldean church. Its members remained loyal to Rome, supported by a new contingent of Latin missionaries who began arriving early in the seventeenth century. By 1629 the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith was so impressed with the flourishing condition of Catholics in Iran that a Latin bishop was consecrated for Isfahan, with title to the see of “Babylon.”

By the end of the century intrepid Latin missionaries, including Augustinians, Discalced Carmelites, Capuchins, Jesuits, and Dominicans, had succeeded in winning over thousands of members from the Church of the East to the Catholic Faith. Even the catholicos of the East became a convert when Elias VIII sent a profession of faith to Rome, so that for a time all Iranian Christians were in communion with the Pope. Then a strange evolution occurred. Due to the interminable wars between Turks and Persians along their border, which lay in the heart of Christian territory, the Sulaqa line of patriarchs was forced into the remote mountains of Kurdistan. Here, prompted by their isolation and chagrined at the attention Catholic missionaries gave to their former rivals, the original Chaldeans returned to a heretical position on the duality of persons in Christ. On the other hand, the Elias line of catholicoi became firm in their communion with Rome after the early nineteenth century.

Both the Assyrian and Chaldean churches exist in modern Iran. With 14,000 members, Chaldeans are the largest indigenous community of Christians in the nation. The Assyrians number about a thousand less. The Chaldeans have three bishops (in Rezaiyeh, Ahvaz and Tehran), and owe their allegiance to Patriarch Paul II Cheiko, who lives in Iraq where most Chaldeans are to be found. As native Iranians, Chaldeans in Iran have the least to fear from the revolution, which is as much nationalist as Islamic.

There is also a community of three thousand Armenian Catholics in Iran, located entirely in Isfahan and Tehran. The fortunes of this group will parallel those of the larger Armenian Christian population of the country. Their immediate future is none too promising due to the strong national identity which the Armenians as a whole have kept in Iran and the resentment of native Iranians against the prosperity they enjoyed under the Pahlavi dynasty.

The Latin Catholic church, while not large, was very influential before the revolution. Its prominence came from the nine religious orders which operated schools enrolling eight thousand students, mostly upper class Muslims. The course of study in these schools was Western-oriented and admission was eagerly sought by the affluent in prerevolutionary days.

The vast majority of Latin Catholics in Iran were foreigners: engineers, businessmen, diplomats and military advisors, there by invitation of the Shah to serve in his plans to modernize the country. Since the revolution, their presence has become an irritant at best, and most have returned home. The Latin bishop is an Irish Dominican, William Barden. He will undoubtedly remain in Tehran, as will the staffs at the Catholic schools, but their days of popularity must surely be ended.

All over Iran the mullahs, leaders of the Shi’ite form of Islam, have been catapulted into positions of enormous power. To his partisans, the Ayatollah Khomeini is an oracle of undisputed wisdom. His opinion on Catholic Christianity will determine what lies in the future for the Iranian church. The constitution for the Iranian Islamic Republic does, however, provide for a Christian representative in the parliament.

Whatever the future may bring, the Chaldean church will survive. It has been a part of the Iranian scene for centuries, and has faced adversity in the past. It will just as surely outlive the revolutionary trauma of the present.

Charles A. Frazee is a professor of Byzantine history at California Sate University, Fullerton.

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