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Christianity in Iran has had a long history, dating back to the very early years of the faith. It has always been a minority religion, overshadowed by the majority state religionsZoroastrianism in the past, and Shia Islam today — though it had a much larger representation in the past than it does today. Christians of Iran have played a significant part in the history of Christian mission. Today, there are at least 600 churches in Iran[1]. Today, Christianity is the fastest growing religion in Iran.

Contents

Main denominations

The Armenian orthodox Vank cathedral of Isfahan is a relic of the Safavid era.

A number of Christian denominations are represented in Iran. Many members of the larger, older churches belong to ethnic groups with their own distinctive culture and language. The members of the newer, smaller churches are drawn both from the traditionally Christian ethnic minorities and to an increasingly larger degree converts from non-Christian background.

The main Christian churches are:

According to Operation World, there are between 7,000 and 15,000 members and adherents of the various Protestant, Evangelical and other minority churches in Iran[4], though these numbers are particularly difficult to verify under the current political circumstances.

The International Religious Freedom Report 2004 by the U.S. State Department quotes a somewhat higher total number of 300,000 Christians in Iran, and states the majority of whom are ethnic Armenians.[5]

Iranian government sources are sometimes quoted as giving a total of as many as 300,000 Christians in Iran. At present there are 73 registered churches in Iran.[6]

History

Qara Kelissa, West Azarbaijan. Believed by some to have been first built in 66 AD by Saint Jude. Local Armenians believe that he and Simon were both buried here. In 1329, the church was reconstructed after an earthquake destroyed the structure in 1319.

According to the Acts of the Apostles there were Persians, Parthians and Medes among the very first new Christian converts at Pentecost. Since then there has been a continuous presence of Christians in Persia/Iran.

During the apostolic age, Christianity began to establish itself throughout the Mediterranean. However, a quite different Christian culture developed on the eastern borders of the Roman Empire and in Persia. Syriac Christianity owed much to preexistent Jewish communities and the Aramaic language. This language was most probably spoken by Jesus, and, in various modern forms is still spoken by some Christians in Iran today (see Assyrian Neo-Aramaic and Senaya language). From Persia, missionary activity established the Saint Thomas Christians of India and the Nestorian Stele and Daqin Pagoda in China.

Early Christian communities straddling the Roman-Persian border were in the midst of civil strife. In 313, when Constantine I proclaimed Christianity to be a tolerated religion in the Roman Empire, the Sassanid rulers of Persia adopted a policy of persecution against Christians, including the double-tax of Shapur II in the 340s. Christians were feared as a subversive and possibly disloyal minority. In the early 5th century official persecution increased once more. However, from the reign of Hormizd III (457-459) serious persecutions grew less frequent and the church began to achieve recognised status. Political pressure within Persia and cultural differences with western Christianity were mostly to blame for the Nestorian schism, in which the Persian church was labelled heretical. The bishop of the Persian capital, Ctesiphon, acquired the title first of catholicos, and then patriarch completely independent of any Roman/Byzantine hierarchy.

Persia is considered by some to have been briefly officially Christian. Khosrau married a Christian wife, and his son Nushizad was also a Christian. When the king was taken ill at Edessa a report reached Persia that he was dead, and at once Nushizad seized the crown. Very soon the rumour was prove false, but Nushizad was persuaded by persons who appear to have been in the pay of Justinian to endeavour to maintain his position. The action of his son was deeply distressing to Khosrau; it was necessary to take prompt measures, and the commander, Ram Berzin, was sent against the rebels. In the battle which followed Nushizad was mortally wounded and carried off the field. In his tent he was attended by a Christian bishop, probably Mar Aba I, and to this bishop he confessed his sincere repentance for having taken up arms against his father, an act which, he was convinced, could never win the approval of Heaven. Having professed himself a Christian he died, and the rebellion was quickly put down.

Many old churches remain in Iran from the early days of Christianity. The Church of St. Mary in northwestern Iran for example, is considered by some historians to be the second oldest church in Christendom after the Church of Bethlehem in the occupied Palestinian West Bank. A Chinese princess, who contributed to its reconstruction in 642 AD, has her name engraved on a stone on the church wall. The famous Italian traveller Marco Polo also described the church in his purported visit.

The Islamic conquest of Persia, in the 7th century, was originally beneficial to Christians as they were a protected minority under Islam. However, from about the 10th century religious tension led to persecution once more. The influence of European Christians placed Asian Christians in peril during the Crusades. From the mid 13th century, Mongol rule was a relief to Persian Christians until the Mongols adopted Islam. The Christian population gradually declined to a small minority. Christians disengaged from mainstream society and withdrew into ethnic ghettos (mostly Aramaic and Armenian speaking).

In 1445, a part of the Aramaic-speaking church entered into communion with the Catholic Church (mostly in the Ottoman Empire, but also in Persia). This group had a faltering start but has existed as a separate church since the consecration of Yohannan Sulaqa as Chaldean Patriarch of Babylon in 1553 by the pope. Most Catholics in Iran today are members of the Chaldean Catholic Church. The Aramaic-speaking community that remains independent is the Assyrian Church of the East. Both churches now have much smaller memberships in Iran than the Armenian Apostolic Church.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Protestant missionaries began to evangelize Persia. Work was directed towards supporting the extant churches of the country while improving education and health care. Unlike the older, ethnic churches, these evangelical Protestants began to engage with the Persian Muslim community. Their printing presses produced much religious material in various languages. Some Persians subsequently converted to Protestantism and their churches still thrive within Iran (using the Persian language).

Current situation

The Russian Church of Qazvin.

Due to the socio-economic and political pressures in the years following the Iranian Revolution, periods of outright persecution and times of more latent discrimination, many Iranian Christians, both as part of the general exodus of Iranians and as response to the specific pressures, have emigrated, mostly to the USA, Canada and Western Europe. In 2000, about 0.4% of Iran's population were Christians. In 1975, Christians numbered about 1.5% of the total population. Statistically, a much larger percentage of non-Muslims have emigrated out of Iran.

While the government guarantees the recognised Christian minorities a number of rights (production and sale of non-halal foods), guaranteed representation in parliament, special family law etc., government intrusion, expropriation of property, forced closure and persecution, particularly in the initial years after the Iranian Revolution, have all been documented. According to the Barnabas Fund, 'the regime rules through fear, and they want Christians to be afraid'. Most prominent has been the death of Haik Hovsepian Mehr, bishop of the Jamiat-e Rabbani, in 1994. Recently the continuing imprisonment of Hamid Pourmand,[7] [8] a lay pastor of Jammiat-e Rabboni, and the murder of Ghorban Tourani,[9] [10] the pastor of an independent evangelical church have created international concern.

The Jamiat-e Rabbani churches and the Anglican Church are both readily accepting converts from Islam and are subsequently growing in membership. About 80% of Jamiat-e Rabbani's members are currently converts from Islam. The majority of other Christian denominations continues to shrink due to emigration.

The Bible in languages of Iran

Armenian and Assyrian Christians use Bibles in their own languages.

The Bible was translated into the local languages early in the Christian period. More recently, a Bible translation in Persian Language was conducted by Henry Martyn in the 18th century. Current commonly used Persian Language translations are the Tarjumeh-ye Tafsiri (explained translation) and the older Standard Version.

Portions of the Bible are translated into Azeri (New Testament), Mazanderani (several gospels) and Kurdish(gospels).

See also

Further Literature

External links

  • A Cry from Iran – an award winning documentary video (DVD) telling the story of some Iranian Christian martyrs

References

  1. ^ Ahmadinejad: Religious minorities live freely in Iran (PressTV, 24 Sep 2009)
  2. ^ "In Iran, 'crackdown' on Christians worsens". Christian Examiner (Washington D.C.: Christian Examiner). April 2009. http://www.christianexaminer.com/Articles/Articles%20Apr09/Art_Apr09_23.html. Retrieved 2009-12-01.  
  3. ^ Price, Massoume (December 2002). "History of Christians and Christianity in Iran". Christianity in Iran. FarsiNet Inc.. http://www.farsinet.com/iranbibl/christians_in_iran_history.html. Retrieved 2009-12-01.  
  4. ^ a b c http://www.operationworld.org/country/iran/owtext.html
  5. ^ "Iran - International Religious Freedom Report 2009". The Office of Electronic Information, Bureau of Public Affair. 2009-10-26. http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2009/127347.htm. Retrieved 2009-12-01.  
  6. ^ یافته های طرح آمارگیری جامع فرهنگی کشور، فضاهای فرهنگی ایران، آمارنامه اماکن مذهبی، 2003، وزارت فرهنگ و ارشاد اسلامی، ص 344
  7. ^ http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/MDE13/060/2005/en/dom-MDE130602005en.html
  8. ^ http://www.compassdirect.org/en/display.php?page=news&lang=en&length=long&idelement=3827
  9. ^ http://www.iranvajahan.net/cgi-bin/news.pl?l=en&y=2005&m=12&d=06&a=10
  10. ^ http://www.compassdirect.org/en/display.php?page=news&lang=en&length=long&idelement=4099
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