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Christianity under Parthian and Sassanian Rule

The history of Christianity in Iran is closely linked to that of the Syriac and Armenian communities there. In the II century, Christianity crossed the Euphrates, originally the political divide between Sassanian Iran and the Roman Empire and which became after AD 424 the religious divide between the Church of the East and the Western Churches. It first reached Edessa (todays Urfa in southeastern Turkey). Christianity spread from Antioch to Armenia, Upper Mesopotamia and the Adiabene in the north of present Iraq, where several communities established themselves.

According to Bardeisan, the Gospel had crossed by the second decade of the III century also into the territory of present Iran - mainly into Azerbaijan, Media and Khuzestan, as well as the region of Gilan, south of the Caspian Sea, and even the Kushan Empire whose western part corresponded to Transoxiana. Hence, the Church of the East already stretched from the Euphrates to the Hindu Kush following one of the main routes of the Silk Road linking Imperial China with the Roman Empire.

While the ideological indifference of the Parthians represented an ideal opportunity for the spread of Christianity, the situation changed after 224 with the seizure of power by the Sassanians. They revitalized Zoroastrianism by elevating it to state religion - a policy, which limited the tolerance Christianity had so far enjoyed. At the same time, the Sassanian rulers adopted a forward policy against the Roman Empire contrasting with the merely defensive strategy of the Parthians. Several victorious campaigns into Roman territory brought as a side-effect an influx of Christian prisoners of war, for example when Shapur I sacked Antioch in 260 and deported 10,000 of Antiochians including bishop Demetrius. Most of the deportees were settled in Iranian Khuzestan.

Like all other non-Zoroastrian religions, the Christians came soon to suffer from the uncompromising zeal of the Zoroastrian priest Kartir, who served over a period of more than half a century (240/41-294) six different shahs. He organized the hierarchy of the Zoroastrian clergy, controlled the orthodoxy of the Zoroastrian faith and proclaimed in numerous stone-inscriptions the principles of the new state religion. He ordered a systematic persecution of Manichaeans and of Buddhists, which he extended in 287 to Christians. This first persecution of Christians stopped under King Narses (293-302); it later proved to have been a mere mild prelude compared to those occurring in the IV and V centuries.

As long as the Sassanians' arch-enemy Rome was persecuting Christians, Eastern Christianity in Iran had been only a religious problem. With Rome adopting Christianity as its state religion, Sassanian Iran turned anti-Christian. In the first Great Persecution from 339 till 383 they suffered about 200,000 causalities, among them dozens of bishops. But, in spite of these persecutions, the Church of the East continued to grow. At the council of 410 it reconstituted its hierarchy, which had been decimated by the persecutions, appointed the bishop of the capital Seleucia-Ctesiphon as its Catholicos-Patriarch, adopted the Creed of Nicaea from 325 and established new rules confirmed by the signature of 36 bishops.

In 424, the Church of the East became, for political reasons, an autocephalous Church independent of any western institution. The Patriarch can only be judged by Christ, not by his subordinates, the bishops.

The official break from Byzantium and the Orthodox Church came in 431, when Patriarch Nestor, a Persian by birth, was accused of denying the concept of Christ born Incarnate, thereby rejecting the title of Theotokos ('Mother of God') for Mary. The gradual theological antagonism between the so-called Nestorian Church of the East and the western churches lies in its emphasis of the human dimension of Christ while the western Churches, especially the miaphysite (monophysite) ones such as the Jacobites or the Copts, stress rather his divine nature.

The Nestorian Church (now the Assyrian Church), tied for safety into Sassanid lands, only to find that unrest in the Caucasus had provoked Shah Yazdigird II (439-57) to order the forced conversion of Armenian Christians (Gregorian Church) to Zoroastrianism. Despite such persecution, few Christians assisted the Byzantine war effort against the Sassanid regime because Byzantium rejected the validity of these Eastern churches, forbidding their rituals and liturgies.

The intellectual power of the Church was further stimulated in the V century by the influx of Greek theologians from the West following the anti-Nestorian riots in Edessa in 457 and the Byzantine Emperor Zeno's closure of its famous School of the Persians in 489. Teachers and students fled to Nisibis (southeastern Turkey), which had belonged since Shapur II's victory over the Roman Emperor Julianus Apostata in 363 to Iran. The University of Nisibis was for a century the most famous university of the Church until it was challenged by those of Baghdad and Gondeshapur in Khuzestan, called Beit Lapat by the Christians. Later Khusro I enlarged this Nestorian university to become the first state university where law, finance, administration and agriculture were also taught. In order to link the theoretical teaching to practice, a hospital and an observatory were attached to the university.

The fate of Gondeshapur's neighbour Susa was also tightly bound with that of the Nestorians. The first example of this was its destruction by Shapur II after 341, allegedly on account of a Christian rebellion. Similar catastrophes befell it in 420 when Bishop Abdas' refused to rebuild a Zoroastrian temple destroyed by one of his priests, which provoked further persecutions, and also in 551 when the Christian son of Khusro I, Nushizad, unsuccessfully tried to overthrow his father. Although the local Christians were involved in the coup and were risking the wrath of the Shah, he appointed the Nestorian Patriarch Mar Aba I (540-552) to convince the Nestorians to abandon the rebellion.

Only very few Nestorian architectural relics from the Sassanian time in Iran have survived, apart from those around Orumiyeh. The ruin of a Nestorian church founded at the end of the IV century may have been identified in Merv, Khorasan, which belongs today to Turkmenistan. Another possible Nestorian relic is Deir-e Gachin, situated 80 km (50 miles) south of Rey, a bishopric since the late IV or early V century. On the island of Kharg in the upper Persian Gulf northwest of Bandar-e Bushehr, Christian tombstones as old as the III century and ruins of a large Nestorian monastery built in the V century have been found. The Church of the East experienced stormy times under Shah Khusro II (591-628). After the Nestorian bishops tricked the Shah in an election to the patriarchate, he forbade the position front being filled when it next fell vacant, and the Church remained leaderless from 608 to 628.

Under Arab Rule

The Christians of Iraq and Iran met the invading Arabs with at least indifference, or even welcomed them as liberators; they had no reason to regret their former Sassanian oppressors. At that time, the Christians were at the verge of becoming the religious majority of the Sassanian Empire, for they probably accounted for 40% of the total population. The Nestorians formed the bulk of the Christians with a share of about 75%, while the Jacobites accounted for 15 to 20% and the other Christians for 5% to 10%. The higher clergy of the Church of the East numbered at that time one patriarch, nine metropolitan bishops and 96 ordinary bishops: 106 bishops in total. The community was organized since the early Sassanian times, as a semi-autonomous theocracy (later called millet), placed under the authority of their patriarch. He was responsible for the good behaviour of the members of his community, over whom he held judicial power and the right to gather the required taxes. His election had to be confirmed after 410 by the ruler, the Sassanian shah or later the Muslim caliph. In that sense he was a state employee; in fact under the Abbasid dynasty he became one of the highest dignitaries of the empire. Later the authority of Patriarch Timothy I (780-823) was expanded all the Christians of the Caliphate, a jurisdiction, which was formally confirmed on behalf of Patriarch Odisho II (1074-1090).

When the Muslim Arabs entered Iran in the late VII century and offered religious freedom and lower taxes, they were welcomed and indeed those promises were kept for many years. The status of the Christians was defined in the so-called Covenants of Omar. While these documents guaranteed life and property of the Christians and the integrity of the existing churches, they, however, imposed many discriminatory burdens on the subject communities: Christians had to pay double taxation, they were prohibited from testifying in court against Muslims, the conversion of Muslims to Christianity was prohibited, and any conversion to Islam was seen as irreversible. The construction of new churches and the repair of existing ones was prohibited. The protected status of so-called dhimmis was equivalent to a socio-political ghetto, which was further highlighted by public humiliations such as the obligation for Christians and Jews to wear a special belt or a yellow or red patch on the front and back of their clothing. In spite of these discriminations, the early Abbasid time was a period of intellectual fertility. It was the Period of Translation, when Christian scholars translated philosophic and scientific texts from Greek to Syriac and then to Arabic. But under the Caliph al-Mutawakkil (847-861) the tide turned against the Nestorians, the discriminatory regulation were reinforced and many churches were either destroyed or changed into mosques.

Later waves of persecution, especially under Timurid rule, dramatically reduced the Christian community. Matters improved under the Safavid regime (1502-1735) as the shahs were mindful of European trade and of Armenian Christian and Jewish expertise in silk trading. The great influence wielded by the French, British and Russian ambassadors at the XIX-century Qajar court also ensured a measure of protection, and in 1898 a large section of the Nestorians in the Orumiyeh region was received into the Russian Orthodox Church.

Under Mongol Rule

The XIII century brought dramatic changes. The Mongols, advancing from Central Asia, first devastated Khorasan and destroyed cities with strong Nestorian minorities such as Merv, Neishapur and Herat. Later, Hulagu, the grandson of Genghis Khan, conquered Baghdad in 1258 and ended the Abbasid Caliphate. Since the new rulers treated all religions as equal as long as their members obeyed the orders of the Mongol rulers, the Nestorians were now on an equal footing with Muslims. Their position was further improved by the fact that several Ilkhans had Nestorian mothers or wives who had within Mongolian society considerable influence.

The Nestorians also participated in the diplomatic efforts of the Ilkhans to win military support from Christian powers against the Muslim Mamluks who had defeated the Mongolian Nestorian general Kid Buka in 1260 at Ain Jalut near Nazareth. Patriarch Mar Yahballahah III (1281-1317) who was a native Mongol Ongiit was later personally involved when he wrote in 1302 to Pope Boniface VIII to endorse the credentials of Ghazan Khan's envoy. The Muslim Ghazan Khan (1295-1304) was so keen to obtain a military alliance from a European power against Egypt that he even offered to become Christian. But Ghazan was not to become a Mongol Constantine. The Crusades had ended in disaster and Europe had lost interest in Palestine. Ghazan remained Muslim and his successor, the Christian prince Nicholas converted to Islam under the name of Oljeitu (1304-1316). By this time, Iran and Iraq became irreversibly Muslim. Due to increased pressure, discrimination and the persecution by Tamerlane after 1380, a large share of the Nestorians either converted to Islam or left the cities and sought shelter in the mountainous regions of Kurdistan, Azerbaijan and in Hakkari (Eastern Turkey).

The Church of the East was not spared in its mountain refuge from the further blows of fate. In 1553, a major schism occurred when a part of its clergy under the leadership of Bishop John Sulaqa (d. 1555) entered into a union with the Catholic Church of Rome, from which the Chaldean Catholic Church arose with its present see in Baghdad. After the 1840s the Muslim Kurds committed against the Nestorians - who now called themselves Assyrians - several massacres which culminated during World War I in the death of half of the Nestorian people and the assassination of their patriarch - a genocide proportional in size to the concurrent massacre of the Armenians. Lured by empty promises of an autonomous homeland, the Assyrians' irregular troops sided with the Russian troops operating in Azerbaijan and later lied to the British protectorate of Iraq. The Islamic revolution in 1979 and the first Gulf War in 1991 further accelerated the move into exile.

The Nestorians in the Islamic Republic of Iran

Since 1979, half of Iran's 65,000 Nestorians have left the country. Although the constitution stipulates the equality of all Iranian citizens, there are many exceptions: 1. It remains strictly prohibited to convert Muslims to Christianity; on the other hand, conversions from Christianity to Islam are welcome and encouraged. 2. It is hardly possible for Assyrians to find public employment. 3. Professions commanding prestige or political power in the judiciary or politics are only open to Muslims. 4. The blood money to be paid for any Christian man killed was, until December 29th 2003, when the law was abrogated by the National Parliament, only l/13th of the that for a Muslim man; for a Christian woman the figure was l/26th.

On the other hand, the Christians are free to repair their churches or to build new ones should they be needed, which is not the case in other Muslim countries such as Egypt or Saudi Arabia. In Tehran there are, besides the two main Nestorian Churches, also the Church of the Assyrian Pentecostals which numbers about 2000 followers, and a Church belonging to the Assyrian-Protestant community. Small Nestorian communities live in Tabriz, Esfahan, Hamadan and Ahvaz.

Today, Christians form the largest religious minority in Iran with a population estimated at around 200,000, most of whom are Armenian, recognising the Yerevan Patriarch and generally living in Tehran, Esfahan and Shiraz. As a legacy of XIX-century foreign missionary work, there are Presbyterian, Anglican, Lutheran and Catholic congregations, especially in the capital. Immediately following the Islamic Revolution, the then Iranian Anglican bishop and his wife (but not their son) survived assassination but Anglican schools and hospitals were closed. Later the Persian Bible Society, Tehran, was closed and all files confiscated. Other than, in Esfahan, where the churches are often open to visitors, and Tehran, it is difficult to get access to churches without prior arrangement.

Christians are allowed to consume alcohol and hold mixed-sex parties with dancing, just as long as no Muslims can see the revelry.