A Brief History of Christianity in Iran
By: Massoume Price, December 2002
Christianity arrived in Iran during the Parthian (Ashkanian) period. In the book of 'Acts of Apostles' (chapter II, V.9) first century AD, it is mentioned that on "the Day of Pentecost (part of harvest festival observed by early Christians) there were at Jerusalem "Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and inhabitants of Mesopotamia". Early Christian records mention that Peter and Thomas preached the Gospel to the Parthians and men such as Thaddaeus, Bartholomew, and Addeus evangelized the races of Mesopotamia and Persia, and that Mari, a noble Persian convert, succeeded Addeus in the government of the Persian Christian communities. The bishops, Abrjs, Abraham, Jacob, Ahadabuhi, Tomarsa, Shahlufa, and finally bishop Papa succeeded him (end of the third century). Syriac documents also indicate that towards the beginning of the third century the Christians in the Persian territories had some three hundred and sixty churches, and many martyrs.
Arbela, fifty miles east of river Tigris (Dejleh), the capital of Adiabene a small Persian border kingdom was the earliest center of Christianity in Iran (present day Iraq). There was a large concentration of Jews in Arbela and in Nisibis in eastern Mesopotamia and while some Jews were instrumental in spreading Christianity others opposed the new faith. The first century Jewish historian, Josephus mentions that a king of Adiabene accepted Judaism about AD 36. Such a conversion made Arbela a natural center for Jewish Christian mission at an early date. Nisibis another major city of the area was also the seat of a Jewish Academy of learning. Christianity spread in both Villages and cities and by the end of the Parthian period (AD 225), Christian communities were settled all the way from Edessa, an important missionary center, to Afghanistan. The Chronicles of Arbela report that by this time there were already more than twenty bishops in Persia and Christians had already penetrated Arabia and Central Asia.
Parthian Kings were tolerant of other religions and Christianity kept slowly but steadily advancing in various parts of the empire. At the time of the persecution of Christians in Rome many sought refuge in Iran and were given protection by the Iranian rulers. Though thousands of Persians embraced Christianity, Persia remained Zoroastrian with many adhering to the Cult of Mithra. There never arose an indigenous Persian Church, worshipping in the Persian language. The Persian Church was of Syrian origin, traditions and tendencies and for about three centuries, regarded Antioch (in Syria) as the center of its faith and the seat of authority.
With Sassanian (A.D. 226-641), Christianity (and other religions) suffered resentment. Its chief opponents were the Zoroastrian Magi and priestly schools, as well as some Jews. When the Roman emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion in Rome (AD 312) and himself the sovereign of all Christians, the new fate became associated with Iran's archenemy. Conversion of Armenians into Christianly and defection of some Armenian army units to Rome made the matters worse. Religious and national feelings were united and paved the ground for future persecutions that continued in Persia for a century after they had ceased in Rome, where they started in the first place.
The Sassanian kings in general championed Zoroastrianism, and though some did not mind Christianity, the national feeling always clung to the ancient creed. Nevertheless Christianity kept steadily growing partly due to deportation of several hundred thousand Christian inhabitants of Roman Syria, Cilicia and Cappadocia by Shapour I (240-270AD). The deportees wee settled in Mesopotamia, Persis (Pars) and Parthia. The decision was based on economic and demographic reasons but unintentionally promoted the spread of the new faith. New cities and settlements in fertile but sparsely populated regions such as Khuzistan and Meshan were built. Many Christians were employed in big construction projects and had a large number of skilled workers and craftsmen among them. The city soon became a significant cultural and educational center with the famous library and University of Jundaishapour, home to scholars from all over including many Christian and Jewish scholars. It also became the center of silk production in Iran with many Christians involving in every aspect of silk production, management and marketing.
This period of peace and prosperity for the Christian community lasted until the reign of Bahram II (276-293AD). First persecutions included that of Bahram's Christian concubine Candida, one of the first Persian Martyrs. The persecutions were supported and even promoted by the powerful high priest Kirdir who in one inscription declares how Ahriman and the idols suffered great blows and continues as follows: "and the Jews (Yahud), Buddists (Shaman), Hindus (Brahman), Nazarenes (Nasara), Christians (Kristiyan), Baptists (Makdag) and Manicheans (Zandik) were smashed in the empire, their idols destroyed, and the habitations of the idols annihilated and turned into abodes and seats of the gods".
But these persecutions remained exceptions compared to the fourth century when systematic harassment of Christians began. Originally Christianity had spread among the Jews and the Syrians. But by the beginning of the fourth century, Persians in increasing numbers were attracted to Christianity. For such converts, even during peaceful times, membership in the church could mean loss of family, property, civil rights and even death. Some persecutions under Shapour II (309-379AD) were as horrid as those administered by the Roman Emperor Diocletian who used to burn or feed the Christians alive to wild beasts, or have them killed publicly at the games by the gladiators.
Towards the beginning of the fourth century the head of the Persian Church selected the city of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, the capital of the Persian Empire, as his center of authority (Ctesiphon metropolitan). Under his jurisdiction were several bishops, one of them, Yohannan bar Maryam of Arebela was present at the very important Council of Nicaea (325 AD) in Rome. In 340 or 341 AD, the new metropolitan (Archbishop) of Ctesiphon, Shem'on (Simeon) bar Sabba'e, was urged by Shapour II, to collect a special tax from the Christians to finance the costs of war against Rome. His refusal was the prelude to the systematic persecution of Christians. In the Martyrology of Simeon, Shapour is quoted of accusing the bishop of having political motives for his policies. While the Persian sage, Aphrahat, the most important intellectual representative of Christianity in Iran at the time in his Demonstrations compares Constantine with good and the proud Shapour with forces of evil.
Aphrahat was an Assyrian born in northern Mesopotamia in the region of Adiabene and was a monk, probably a bishop. His only surviving work Demonstration contains 23 treatises, which he wrote between AD 337 and AD 345. The first ten chapters of Demonstrations deal with ten specific aspects of Christian life and doctrine such as faith, fasting, prayer and humbleness. In this he displays a very simple faith, firmly centered on the Scriptures. For him a "Christian life must be a life of unrelenting warfare between believers and the devil. The most dangerous instrument of satanic temptation is a woman; the safest path for man, therefore, is to renounce the love of a woman, and live alone for Christ. As for women, their highest calling is to espouse virginity and thus rob the devil of his tool for temptation. Since it was not possible for all to remain celibate, Christians may marry, but if they do, it might be best to marry before baptism". In his address to the monks he recommends that "if a monk desires, that a woman bound by celibacy, should dwell with him, it would be better for both parties to marry and live openly together" (Demonstrations VI.4). His ideas were picked up over a century later when the church had to make a decision about celibate clergy.
Shapour was not the only enemy; in the Chronicles of Arbela Christians blame Magi, Jews and Manicheans for promoting hatred against Christians and calling them Roman spies. In fact some Zoroastrian authorities such as mogbed and rad (titles in priestly hierarchy) are named for being directly involved in interrogating and convicting Christians at times of persecutions (Syriac Acts of Martyrs). Some Christian accounts of martyrdoms show anti-Jewish tendency, and the same is true of some writings of the Eastern Church fathers. Weather those Christians had political motives or not needs more research, however surviving literature indicates that they indeed regarded their faith as superior. Their world was not divided between Romans and Iranians but between 'people of God' and the 'outsiders' or 'non believers'. In their literature they identify themselves as 'pure ones', 'just ones' or 'people of God'. Distinctions are made between ethnic Christians, nasraye and deported ones and their descendants called Krestyane. They also referred to themselves as misihaye (those who believe in Messiah (Massih).
Shapour's peace treaty with Emperor Jovian halted the persecutions for a while (AD363). By this treaty, Mesopotamia and Armenia came under the control of Persia. In AD 409, the Persian king Yazdegard I, by an edict of toleration brought an end, for the time being, to the persecution of Christians. He had a Jewish wife and was well disposed towards both Judaism and Christianity and in fact was called the 'Christian King' by some. The edict allowed Christians to publicly worship and to build churches. The peace helped the Christian community to re-organize its life. Tensions eased further when Iranian Christians created their own ecclesiastical organizations with its own hierarchy and eventually became independent from the Western Church.
Though Rome and Constantinople were the centers of the so-called 'Orthodox Christianity', many Christian groups particularly in Mesopotamia opposed their policies and doctrines. In 410, a meeting of Christians was held at the Persian capital under the presidency of Mar Isaac, the bishop of Ctesiphon. An independent new Church was announced and the leader (metropolitan) was called 'Catholicos-Patriarch'. The council confirmed Mar Isaac as the first Catholicos and Archbishop of all the Orient.
The Synod (Ecclesiastical/Church council) also declared its adherence to the decision of the Council of Nicea in Rome and subscribed to the Nicene Creed. Though the church was not fully independent from Rome as yet, Yazdegerd approved of the organization of the Persian church on this basis and issued an edict giving recognition to the Catholicos as the head of the Persian church. Christians in Iran received a definite standing among the population, with freedom to manage their own affairs, but answerable to the state authorities through the Catholicos who became a civil as well as a religious head. The decree also dictated that the election of a Catholicos had to be approved by the king and he became king's nominee.
Early in Yazdegerd's reign Maruthas, a Mesopotamia bishop represented the Roman Emperor at the Persian Court. He was instrumental in re-organizing the Persian Church and spreading Christianity further in Iran and Nisibis became a strong Christian center. Later in the reign of Yazdegerd, the Persian bishop, Abdas of Susa destroyed a Zoroastrian temple in the city; the king ordered the bishop to restore the building at his own expense. Abdas refused and the result was the order by the king to destroy all churches. Before long the destruction of churches developed into a general persecution, in which Abdas was one of the first martyrs. When Yazdegerd died in 420, and was succeeded by his son Bahram V, the persecution continued, and large numbers of Christians fled across the frontier into Roman territory. Bahram demanded the surrender of the Christian fugitives, and once again war was declared against Rome in 422. Although the latter half of the fourth and the beginning of the fifth century was a period of conflict in the Eastern provinces, the period was also a time of expansion for the Christian Church and of literary activity. This literary and ecclesiastical development led to the formation of a Syriac literature in Persia (Syriac being the liturgical language of the Persian Church), and ultimately of a Christian Persian literature. By 420 there were 5 metropolitans including two at Merv and Heart and bishop Dadyeshu was elected Catholicos. He was imprisoned a year later and internal divisions and disputes were intensifying at the time amongst different Christian denominations.
During the rule of Bahram V (421-438) the third synod of the church introduced a radical change. The Synod of Dadyeshu met in 424 under the presidency of Mar Dadyeshu. The first synod of Isaac in 410 had decided that the Catholicos of Seleucia-Ctesiphon be supreme among the bishops of the East. The Synod of Dadyeshu decided that the Catholicos should be the sole head of the Persian church with no one above him. In particular it was laid down that "easterners shall not complain of their Patriarch to the western Patriarchs; every case that cannot be settled by him shall await the tribunal of Christ."
This meant that their Catholicos was answerable to God only and not to Rome, Antioch, Alexandria or Constantinople. Six metropolitans and thirty conventional bishops from all over Persia elected Dadyeshu and he became the first Catholicos equal in rank and authority to any western Patriarchate. This gave the Iranian church the privilege of independent administration and freedom from outside jurisdiction. For a while King Yezdegerd II (439-457AD) welcomed the move and sent the Patriarch of the Persian Church on a mission to meet the Roman Emperor.
The king took a particular interest in the question of religion and studied all religions practiced in Iran. But he remained a zealous Zoroastrian and at the end started persecuting both Christians and Jews. He tried to convert Armenians back into Zoroastrianism; he was defeated once, won again and took hostage the leaders of the Armenian Church and leading members of the local aristocratic families by carrying them off to Iran. The next successor Peroz (459-84) faced many disasters and wars and ended up a hostage. He persecuted the Jews and watched the Christian community going through internal conflict and doctrinal divisions.
In 486 the church made a decision that went against the radical ascetic tendency of the East and against the canon laws of the West. It rejected celibacy and affirmed the rights of all Christians to marry including ordained priests or even bishops. The texts mention social and cultural factors for this verdict. But the state also pressured the church to change its stand on celibate clergy. Zoroastrians held the unmarried clergy in contempt and considered celibacy as a cause of weakness in the empire. The virtue of virginity irritated them and there are accounts of nuns forced out of monasteries to be married and were put to death if refused. This movement against the enforced celibacy of the clergy did not last and the decision was reversed in the sixth century.
Between 450 and 500 the Nestorians, followers of Nestorius the patriarch of Constantinople who created his own brand of Christianity were persecuted in the Roman Empire. They fled to Persia and received protection. Nestorianism had been rejected at a meeting of Christians from all over at 431 in Ephesus (Turkey) and their bishops were forced to flee to Iran. From 488 during the reign of Qubad, the whole Persian Church adopted Nestorianism at the synod of Jundaishapour (Syrian Beth Lapat) and henceforth the Catholicos of Seleucia became the patriarch of the Nestorian Church of Persia, Syria, China, and India. Nestorians believed in the doctrine of the two natures of Christ (human and divine) as opposed to Monophysite's believe in one nature only. The Nestorian doctrine was popular in the Persian border districts, in the 'Persian School' of Edessa and it was also a way to eliminate the suspicion of conspiracy with the Romans.
The 'Persian School" was closed and transferred from Edessa now a Monophysite stronghold to Nisibis and became very famous. The first rector was the leprous Narses (Narsai) a prolific writer he enjoyed immense reputation. He was a great poet and his gift for language made him a master of the Syriac idioms. His scholarship helped the church to be built on strong biblical and theological foundations and was later honored by the title Rabban the Great'. The central aspect of the school was its spiritual discipline, Bible study and missionary work.
This university consisted of a single college, with the regular life of a monastery. Its rules are still preserved. At one time it had more than 800 students. The fame of this theological seminary was so great that it inspired the Italian Pope to establish the Cassiodorus's monastery at Vivarium. Other less important schools existed at Seleucia and elsewhere, some in small towns and another major one at Jundaishapour. The most colorful Christian personality of the period was Barsauma, who fought for the success of the Nestorian confession, founded the new school in Nisibis and was very active politically. He also rebelled against the leader of the Christian community Catholicos Babuwai.
Khosro Anoshirvan's (531-79) wars against Byzantium (540-545) and Emperor Heraclius's victories once more prompted persecutions but peace was resumed afterwards. The king once again guaranteed their freedom of worship and many celebrated Christians such as the philosopher Paul the Persian and members of the famous learned family Bukhtishu joined the royal court and Jundaishapour University. His successor Hormizd IV (570-90) furthermore supported Christians. His mother was the Byzantine princess Maria a Christian and his support created a backlash amongst the Zoroastrian clergy with violent results against Christians. Khosro II, Parviz (579-90) regained his thrown from Bahram Chobeen with help from his father-in law Emperor Mauritius and remained loyal to Christians. He paid honor to Virgin Mary and to a number of saints popular among the Syrians. His wife remained a devoted Jacobite and was immortalized in Persian literature as Queen Maryam in the love story "Khosro and Sheereen". However Khosro Parviz soon turned against Christians when new wars broke out once again.
Khosro Parviz sacked Jerusalem in 610, his Syrian troops looted the city for 3 days, massacred thousands of Christians and religious relics including a piece of the true cross (the one Jesus died on) were carried off to Iran. The cross itself became a center of dispute amongst Byzantium and Iran and eventually was returned as part of a peace treaty. The official teaching of the Nestorian Church at the time of Khosro II is preserved in the treatise "De Unione" composed by the energetic monk Babai the Great.
In the next century the Persian Church kept steadily increasing with a hierarchy of 230 bishops. Christians were scattered over Assyria, Babylonia, Chaldea, Arabia, Media, Khorasan and Persia proper, Turkestan, Merv and both shores of the Persian Gulf. The figure, 'Catholicos of Seleucia' became a powerful entity and the extent of his jurisdiction rivaled the Byzantine patriarchs. On the whole Christian missionaries were successful amongst all groups including high-ranking Iranians. There are accounts of Christians among the landlord classes in Mosul and the surrounding mountains. Khosro III (630) was killed in an insurrection headed by a Christian whose father had been the chief financial officer of the realm. Some of the patriarchs of the Nestorian Church were converts, or sons of converts, from magi priesthood.
Monasteries were introduced in Mesopotamia by monks from Egypt in fourth century and spread quickly. Accounts by Mar Awgin relates that his monastery near Nisibis contained three hundred and fifty monks, while seventy-two of his disciples established each a monastery. Their numbers must have been very high, in addition to the numerous monasteries in Mesopotamia and the regions north of the Tigris, there were scattered monasteries in Persia and Armenia. Besides the cenobites, living in large communities, there were numerous solitaries living in caves or rude huts. Christian mysticism spread through monasteries and greatly influenced Islamic mysticism that emerged in the area after the Muslim conquest .
While numerous, however, the Iranian Christians were not organized into a national church. They differed from the Nestorians farther west but not enough to gain ecclesiastical independence from Nestorianism. Syriac was the ecclesiastical and theological language and even in Persia proper little Christian literature was produced in Persian and the Scriptures had not been translated into Persian either. A few works were produced in Middle Persian mainly to clarify the legal status of Christians In Iran. The Corpus Iuris by the Metropolitan Mar Ishobukht, dating from 8th century is one that has survived in Syriac translation. Other Christian legal books survived in Syriac are a text by the Metropolitan Mar Simeon and one written under Mar Aba in the reign of Khosro I, Anoshirvan (531-539). Mar Aba was a convert from Zoroastrianism, and had studied Greek at Nisibis and Edessa and intended to prepare and publish a new version of the Old Testament, a task he did not finish. He died in prison and his successor was put to death. In 567 Ezechiel, a disciple of Mar Aba, was appointed Catholicos of Seleucia, under whom lived Bodh the periodeutes, the translator into Syriac of the Indian tales "Kalilah and Dimnah". The Indian literature was made popular in Iran through Jundaishapour University's translations of Indian texts.
With the growth of church many differences arose between different confessions, and this probably is one more reason why the church did not evolve into a national Iranian church. The differences, conflicts and rivalries were significant and created many problems amongst the Christians and eventually helped their downfall and the total defeat of the Christian Church after the Muslim and Mongol conquests both in Iran and outside. Matters were further complicated when some converted from the Church of the East to the Roman Catholic denomination. This group was called Chaldeans who rejected Nestorianism at the AD 451 Council of Chalcedon near Constantinople. They adhered to their separate Patriarch in Syria and created a massive rift between Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Rome. Supported by Byzantine Emperors they started persecuting other Christian sects and took control of many local churches.
Armenian and Assyrian churches made the matters worse. Owing to the war with Persia, the Armenian Church did not have a delegate at the Chalcedon council nevertheless they took side against Nestorians. The Nestorians of Persia were quarreling with the Orthodox Church of Persia, which was in communion with the Church of Armenia and asked for their help. Armenians responded and their Catholicos Babgen called a meeting not only of his own bishops but also those of the neighboring Christian countries of Georgia and Caucasian Albania.
They assembled at the headquarters of the Armenian Church in Dvin in the year 506. After long deliberations they officially proclaimed their adherence to the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus and rejected both Nestorians and Chaldeans. The result was the unintentional separation of the Armenian Church from the rest of Christendom, that is, of Greco-Roman Christianity.
Assyrian Christians were also divided into different confessions. Assyrians (Assori) are one of the oldest surviving Christian groups and currently there are around 550,000 left and almost half still live in Iraq. They are descendents of the ancient Assyrians, a major Mesopotamian Empire from 2000BC, destroyed in 612 BC by the Babylonians and Medes. After this collapse the remnant of the Empire was called Urhai and later Edessa. Many Assyrians fled to the secluded mountains of Kurdistan; some settled in Urumiah in northwestern Persia, and others scattered throughout Asia Minor. Presently they occupy the mountains and plains of southern Turkey, Northern and northwestern Iran and many have emigrated to Europe and North America. They speak various dialects of Aramaic a Semitic language and have kept Chaldean as their religious language. According to their chronicles, they embraced Christianity in the first century A.D. Up till the 16th century, prior to penetration of the Jesuit and later Protestant missions in the Middle East, the Assyrians belonged to two ancient Christian denominations: The Church of the East and The Syrian Orthodox Church, popularly known as Jacobite. The split into two different denominations occurred in the 5th century A.D. and appears to have been politically motivated to secure a measure of safety for the Assyrian minority which was caught between two rival empires: Persian (the locus of the Church of the East) and Roman (the locus of the Syrian Orthodox Church). During Sassanian era majority of the Assyrians in Iran adopted Nestorianism and this created a division between them and the Jacobite Assyrians.
Christianity spread in Iran and affected other sects such as Manicheans (Manavi) and persecutions eventually ended. Despite all improvements, Christians of Iran denied the Sassanian their support once the Arabs attacked the Empire. The motive might have been a feeling of affinity with Christian Arab tribes. However once conquered, Christians like Jews became second-class citizens.
The conquest of Islam in seventh century put an end to freedom of religion through out the area. All polytheistic and pagan religions were banned all together with all the other Near and Far Eastern religions. Islam does not recognize these as true religions. All major and minor deities were eliminated as false gods. The house of Kabah contained many such deities (including Christian sacred items), all were banished. The followers of all local gods became 'kofar' and were given the choice to either convert or die. Allah a term used by local Christian tribes, meaning god and a local deity, became the only sovereign god, the almighty. Islam was the last and the most superior of all religions and Muslim males were made superior to all others including Muslim females. Christianity and Judaism were accepted as the only other true religions and their holy scripts were accepted as such. However despite a large number of Christian and Jewish tribes in Arabia, their freedom was substantially restricted and their legal status lowered.
They were given the right to practice their religion if they paid a discriminatory religious poll tax called 'jizya'. In Quran, these people are called dhimmis (ahle zimmeh); later Zoroastrians of Iran were included as well. Quran prohibits Muslims from becoming friends with Christians and Jews and the two are forbidden from any participation in building Mosques and none other than Muslims can visit Mecca, once a multi-fate center. They could not marry Muslim women while Muslim men could marry all. Muslims could not become slaves but all others were subjected to slavery as purchased slaves or war booty. However they were exempt from military service and forced labor. Later on Christians and Jew were banned from riding horses while carrying arms and could not increase their numbers through conversion of others. They were segregated and their houses should have not exceeded those of the Muslims in height (the Jewish quarter in Kirman is an example) and church bells were not to be heard. Dress codes were assigned to them and most ended up in segregated neighborhoods.
Courts of 'Shariat' became the only legal vessel between the Muslims and non-Muslims and 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 'Diyeh' (Monetary compensation). If a Muslim kills a Jew or a Christian, there is no ghesas and they only pay diyeh, 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 worsens by the time of Harun Al Rashid in eight-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 humility 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 ninth century, non-Muslims were all excluded from employment in government sectors, banned from Muslim schools, had to live in closed quarters and were forced 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, would find 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 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 8th century AD. Initiated by the Syriac, Greek, and Persians to preserve the ancient knowledge, the movement started in Syria and flourished in Baghdad. Scientists and intellectuals from all over 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, Christians used Syriac script to write Persian. The position of non-Muslims varied with time and 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 Fount 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 Fount of Knowledge; a nearby bishop was executed for preaching against Islam. He calls Muslims 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 Kabah; and criticizes polygamy practiced by Muslims.
Patriarch Timothy's dialogue with Abbasid caliph Mahdi has become a classic. 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." And 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 conquering the entire Eastern Christendom by the Muslims.
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 the Jews, Christians and Muslims. While some sites were preserved other major Jewish and Christian holy sites were occupied to build Mosques and 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 occupation of the city by the Crusaders in AD 1099 and Muslim retake of Jerusalem in 1187. Muslim rule of Christian territories ended missionary works in the area and compelled Christians to expand into India and the orient.
Nestorian Church became the dominant one in Iran, though it did not grow 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 (and Muslims too). He forced all Christians to strictly follow the dress code imposed earlier, and to wear a five-pound cross around their neck. He forced Jews to wear a heavy bell around theirs', 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. At Caliph al Hakim's death, toleration returned, the center of Coptic Christianity shifted from Alexandria to the new capital, Cairo and churches were rebuilt. The Turkish invasion of Iran and the latter 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 Chrsitians was not very different under Turks and all regulations with respect to dhimmis (Zames) 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 despised the Eastern Christians as 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 a prisoner during the Crusade wars and ended up as a slave/war captive. A friend who bought him and then forced him to marry his daughter rescued him. Saddi complains a lot about this woman in his writings.
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 latter Mongol rulers and also due to Tamerlain's (Taymur) invasion of Persia many churches along with mosques were destroyed and thousands of Christians and Muslims were killed.
The early Mogul rulers before embracing Islam 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 into Islam ended such expectations.
Some of the Il-Khan leaders were also favorable towards Christians. One of the leaders Arghun in late 13th century in his wars against Mamluk rulers of Egypt sought a military alliance with Christian West. In 1285 he sent a letter to Rome and later an emissary to 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. From the invasions of Tamerlaine until the accession of Shah Abbas, the Safavid ruler (1582), a period of two hundred years, its history 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 5000 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 majority were destroyed by 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.
Vank Cathedrale in Esfahan, photo by G.Ross
Under the Safavid kings, the Christians of Azarbaijan and Transcaucasia suffered a lot from the wars between 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 a maniac 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 to Pope Gregory 1X an orthodox profession of faith and was admitted to union 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 once again, mainly due to pressure by the Christians who had remained loyal to Nestorianism and though there were attempts by some patriarchs to re-establish links with Rome the gap between the two widens.
At the end the Nestorians 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 shortly afterwards died. 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.
The first missionaries arrived at the time of Moguls in the 13th and 14 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 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 begin in 1840 by the Lazarists and started with a French civil servant Eugene Bori, 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 Bori. 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 were opened, one for boys, the other for girls, the latter 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. Nasr-ed-Din Shah allocated a yearly allowance of 200 tomans ($400) towards the maintenance of the two institutions. Soon after, two more hospitals were opened, one at Urumiah and one at Khosrowa. 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-ul-Haag" (The Balance of Truth), argued in favor of the superiority of Christianity over Islam. American Protestant missionaries arrived in1830s. 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 into 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, the Province of Azarbedjan (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 into 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.
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 Yaprem 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, Bahai and Zoroastrians fought hard with the constitutionalists to form a National Consultative Majlis 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 not based on religious origins (with the exception of Bahai 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 the next Shah that they were able to freely integrate in 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-Shiite Muslims from becoming a member of the Government. This was ignored by the Pahlavi regime and there were non-Muslim high government officials even Bahai by the 1970's.
The Islamic Revolution of 1979 guarantees religious freedom of the 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 Shariat the legal code and therefore gender and religious discriminations are an integral part of the system. Bahai 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 'Shariat test' is required, in reality these people are 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 are 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 except for the murder of a few priests during the last decade. 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 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 December first 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, Turkey dinners are becoming popular as well. Gifts were generally not exchanged but children received new cloths for the occasion, however gift giving has become a routine and children enjoy both gifts and new cloths. 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 the Muslims. Since the revolution Christians can only celebrate New Year 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 merry and joy.