Armenian Christians at the Black Church in northwestern Iran venerate the site of the apostle Thaddeus’s death. (photo: Armenian Catholic Patriarchate of Antoch)
Christians in Persia have always been a minority, but their roots are extensive, albeit obscure. According to the Acts of the Apostles, Parthians, Medes and Elamites — Persians all — were present on the day of Pentecost. Early Christian tradition credits Sts. Bartholomew, Simon, Thaddeus and Thomas with the evangelization of Persia. And Armenian Christians believe Bartholomew, Simon and Thaddeus died there.
Despite some hostility from Zoroastrian elites, Christianity gained a foothold in Persia by the end of the third century, especially among the Syriac-speaking minority. But when the Roman emperor Constantine I began to favor Christianity in the early fourth century, the Persians suspected Christians of collusion with the Roman enemy and persecuted them.
Persias Christians eventually turned away from the Roman west and looked east, placing themselves in the year 410 under the leadership of the metropolitan archbishop of Seleucia-Ctesiphon. Commonly referred to as the Church of the East, it remained at first in communion with the churches of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. But by the late fifth century, the Church of the East parted ways with the rest of the Christian world and adopted a Christology largely condemned by it.
Arab invaders in the seventh century established Islam in Persia, which became the dominant religion, all but eradicating the Zoroastrian faith practiced by Persians for more than a millennium. Yet, the Church of the East grew under Islamic rule. Until the devastating wars of Timur the Lame in the 14th century, the church had eparchies throughout the Far East.
An influx of Armenian Apostolic Christians — a 17th-century shah granted them a monopoly of the realms emerging silk trade — displaced the Church of the East as the most influential Christian community in Persia. Armenians continued to play a pivotal role in modern Irans economic life until the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979.
Demographics. First settled by Aryan peoples more than 3,000 years ago, Iran is considered among the oldest civilizations in the world. Irans estimated 73 million people belong to a number of ethnic groups — ethnic Persians make up just 51 percent of the population. Other significant communities include Azeris, Mazandaranis, Kurds and Armenians. Despite this diversity, Farsi is the official language and spoken throughout.
The majority of the population is Muslim, 89 percent of whom is Shiite and 9 percent Sunni. About 0.5 percent of the population is Christian. Before the Islamic Revolution, Christians composed 1.5 percent of the country. Most observers believe up to 250,000 Armenian Apostolic Christians remain. Catholics, who total some 19,000 people, include Armenians, Chaldeans and Latins. Up to 20,000 Assyrian Christians and several thousand Anglican and evangelical Protestants live in Iran.
Sociopolitical situation. In December 1978, massive demonstrations led by Shiite religious scholars erupted across the country. Directed by Ayatollah Khomeini, the clerics abolished the monarchy the following February and set up an Islamic republic with Khomeini as Supreme Leader. The supreme leader — who is elected and dismissed by a council of 86 preeminent Islamic scholars — supervises the general policies of the country and appoints the heads of the judiciary, media and military. He is commander in chief of the armed forces and controls military security and intelligence. The president is elected to a four-year term.
By regional standards, Irans education and health care systems are strong. As a result of government reforms over the past 20 years, literacy rates and educational levels, particularly among women, have improved greatly. Similarly, the quality of Irans health care system generally exceeds others in the region. Reforms, especially those directed in previously underserved regions, have largely eliminated discrepancies in access to quality care.
Irans relations with the international community are strained: The European Union, the United Nations and the United States have imposed heavy economic sanctions for Irans ties to groups such as Hezbollah and for its nuclear weapons ambitions.
Economic situation. Though rich in oil and natural gas, Iran faces many economic challenges. Price controls, state subsidies, dependency on the oil market and double-digit unemployment and inflation have hit the countrys youth in particular. A large number of Iranians are young — the median age is 27 — and they have little or no career prospects, contributing to emigration.
Irans economy has grown over the past two decades, its GDP reaching 6.5 percent in 2007. But the global economic downturn has affected Iran, too, with the real growth rate dropping to 2.6 in 2009. The government cannot create enough jobs to absorb the rising number of job-seekers, which grows annually by 4 percent.
Religious situation. Since 1979, most of Irans Christians and other religious minorities have emigrated to the West. Increasing restrictions on religious freedom and discrimination, latent or overt, affect different communities at different times — persecution seems limited to those evangelical Christian groups that publicly evangelize Muslims. Yet, Irans republican constitution guarantees religious freedom to the countrys Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians. Similar to the legislation passed by Irans parliament in 1943, religious minorities have the right to administer many of their own affairs, such as marriage and divorce and wills and inheritance. Seats in parliament are also reserved for Armenian and Assyrian Christians.
UNHCR has registered some 43,000 Iraqi refugees in Iran. But many observers believe the number to be much higher. A significant number of these refugees are Christian, all of whom face an uncertain future.