Christian Persians: History and Modern Era

Christianity penetrated the territory of pagan Persia from the very beginning of the I century which is not surprising at all; geographically Persia is located adjacent to a region where Christianity originated and prospered, called Mesopotamia (Edessa).  

The advancement of the religion was also encouraged and promoted by the active missionary activities of the apostles, by Thomas and his apprentice Fade in particular. The first Persian to convert to Christianity was a slave of a Zoroastrian clergyman (Zoroastrianism – the pagan religion of ancient Persians) named Pakida, who was ordained bishop of Edessa at the end of the 4th century.

The attitude of the state authorities towards Christianity was different depending on the internal and external political situation. E.g. the Parthian dynasty of Arsacids treated the church loyally perceiving that the small Christian community was no threat to the dominant religion of the Persians. The situation changed with the advent of the national Persian Sasanian dynasty.

Back then the external political situation was a valid argument to persecute the Christians: there was a collision between the two worlds: Christian West; the Roman Empire and the pagan East; Persia. This confrontation led to the proclamation of Zoroastrianism as the official state religion and the beginning of direct persecutions of Christians, who were perceived by the authorities as to the «fifth column» of Rome, undermining the fundamental basis of the statehood. 

From the 5th century onwards the situation began to improve slightly as evidenced for example by the fact that some members of the dynasty were Christianized (although they were facing the rage of their relatives and Zoroastrian clergymen). The church managed to hold its ground under the pressure of Sasanian rulers thanks in large part to religious figures; they completely separated the Eastern Church from the Western one, hence neutralizing the main reason for persecutions.

They began to call the bishops Catholicos, which means «ecumenic», or «general», emphasizing the independence of the religious institution. The fact that the Sasanian authorities directed their «vector of anger» to Eastern Armenia, which at the end of the 4th century was part of the Persian Empire trying to convert the Armenians into Zoroastrianism, also played its role.    

The persistent confrontation of both internal, Eastern churches and also Armenians, and most importantly the perception that Christianity will not cause harm pacified the Sasanians and from the 5th to 7th centuries the Persian Empire adhered to wise and balanced policy regarding religious minorities. 

Throughout the history of Iran Christianity has remained the religion of minorities, both under paganism and after Islamization. However, in its early stages, Christianity was represented more widely than in the nowaday Islamic Republic of Iran. 

The Islamic Revolution of Iran took place in 1979 and since then the constitution of the state asserts about forming one worldwide Islamic Ummah (religious community), respectively all laws are written in compliance with Koran. In the video below one can clearly and chronologically see how the appearance of Iranian women changed from the 1910s up to this day. 

Iran (Sabrina) | 100 Years of Beauty – Ep 3 | Cut

According to the current legislation of the country, there are official Christian minorities; ethnic (e.g. Armenians and Assyrians) and nonethnic (i.e. the Persians themselves) who are considered apostates and are repressed in many ways up to the death penalty. Unfortunately, the current regime has led the country to regress and repelled the development of the country decades back. 

The government of Iran has placed many stiff restrictions that are unacceptable for the progressive part of the society, especially the youth and representatives of the Diaspora living in the western countries. The sympathy of some Iranians towards the more liberate monotheistic religion Christianity is mostly due to their national feelings, the strive for the ancient Persian civilization, and not Arabic (in which Islam is heavily steeped), and the opportunity to demonstrate their cultural potential during church services: through Iranian music, dances, etc. 

Despite the stiff laws, there are many secretive Christian Iranians who try to keep in touch with their fellow believers outside the country. The news agency of the Iranian Christians Mohabat News periodically publishes news about the detention of apostates in Iran and helps the Iranians wishing to leave Iran to settle in a more liberated and safer country.

In the west, the Christian Persians feel comfortable and enjoyed life. They have missionary organizations, churches, communities, and prayer congregations. However, they are not indifferent toward the fate of Iran. They follow the events in their homeland and compatriots that live in a conservative Shiite (brand of Islam) society, strictly preserving their way of life.

Eleonora Sargsyan

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