ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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Iran: Ancient and Modern in the Land of the Wise Men

One of the most ancient nations in the world, Iran is a mélange of peoples and faiths.

Many Iranians, regardless of faith, like to boast that the wise men from the East mentioned in St. Matthew (2: 1-12) probably hailed from Persia. The word magi itself is derived from the Old Persian magu meaning a member of an ancient Near Eastern priestly caste who studied astrology. Although the evangelist mentions no specific number, in the West we speak of three wise men, while in the East the number is set at twelve. According to many modern Church scholars, the story of the magi – however many – is Matthew’s way of showing that Christ manifests Himself to all nations.

Christianity eventually spread in the Persian Empire (which extended from Greece to China) to number 100,000,000. Today, Iran (which changed its name from Persia in 1935) is predominantly Muslim, and only a Shiite Muslim can be cabinet minister. However, Shah Pahlevi maintains cordial relations with the Holy See, and is one of only a dozen persons who have been given the Vatican’s highest decoration, the Gold Spur.

The independent kingdom of Iran is settled between the Caucasus and the green, tree-dense mountains which run across the north for 1,000 miles on the Russian frontier, interrupted only by the Caspian Sea. In the east Iran touches the Himalayas of Pakistan, in the west it shares a short frontier with Turkey and Iraq, and to the south is the Persian Gulf and oil country.

One of the most ancient nations in the world, Iran celebrated its 2500th anniversary as an established monarchy in 1971, making it the oldest continuous kingdom in history. Throughout the centuries, Iran has undergone one conquest after another, but has always reaffirmed its own individuality and emerged an intact cultural entity.

According to some scientists, the kingdom is the original home of wheat, and of the peach, the rose, and the cherry. It is a country of contrasts – brown, burned, and barren land complemented by a lush green Persia on the shores of the Caspian Sea where orange groves, olives and tea gardens are abundant.

There is contrast too in the present culture. While retaining the traditional flavor of the East in such things as dress, customs and poetry, Iran is in some respects becoming Westernized. Tehran, with one of the world’s finest airports, is a beautiful modern city. Yet the inhabitants have a bearing which speaks of the grace and distinction of an old and noble culture.

About 25% of the population are urban dwellers, and the majority of the balance nomadic. Fishing, livestock-raising, and agriculture are primary occupations, and although wheat, barley, rice, tobacco, cotton and dates are still important to the Iranian economy, the production of oil is the country’s major asset. Under Shah Pahlevi, Iran’s oil wealth, which has grown spectacularly in the past few years, has spurred development in all areas of the nation, creating jobs and improving living conditions for many – although as in many rapidly-developing countries, the poor seem poorer by comparison.

One thing Iranians of all classes have in common is their beautiful gazelle-like eyes, and a tendency toward the mystical and the poetic. A tea-drinking people with a philosophical bent, they put friendship high on the value scale, while at the same time maintaining a volatile individuality.

Friendship truly is a quality which characterizes Iranian Christians. The majority of Christians are Gregorian Armenian Orthodox, and Catholics of the Chaldean and Armenian rites (while in the minority) are aware that they may be the means of reconciliation with the Orthodox. Catholic high schools often have a large proportion of non-Catholic Christians. For example, most of the 400 girls in the Armenian Sisters of the Immaculate Conception School in Tehran are Orthodox. Muslims also attend Catholic schools, and some of Iran’s most prominent intellectuals, cabinet ministers and nobility have been graduates of a Catholic institution.

Dialogues among Catholics, other Christians and Muslims are not uncommon in Iran, and throughout the country nuns, priests and missionary congregations are offering social services to all, regardless of creed.

It may be that through the Iranian trait of friendship, Catholics in that country will become modern “guiding stars” for Persians who are still seeking the truth.

J. T. Weber is a freelance writer who lived in the Middle East for years.

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