Iran, The Catholic Church in
IRAN, THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN
Located on a plateau in western Asia, Iran is bordered on the north by the Caspian Sea, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan, on the east by Afghanistan and Pakistan, on the south by the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, and on the west by Iraq and Turkey. Although rich in petroleum, natural gas, and other minerals, Iran is plagued by droughts, floods, and dust storms, and its climate combines with its rugged terrain to leave only 30 percent of the country available for farming. While sales of oil and other raw materials have created wealth within the country, half Iran's population live below the poverty line. An Islamic republic since 1979, Iran was known as persia until 1935.
Three branches of the Catholic Church operate within Iran. chaldean rite Catholics belong to the Archdiocese of Urmya, whose suffragan see, Salmas (erected in 1847), is united to it ad personam, an archeparchy located at Ahwaz, and an eparchy, or diocese, at Ispahan. The latin rite Church has an archdiocese located in Ispahan, immediately subject to the Holy See. The Armenian Rite Church has an eparchy created in 1850 and located, as well, in Ispahan.
Early Church History . As a part of what then constituted Asia Minor, Persia fell under the domination of Alexander the Great in 327 b.c. Coming from a tradition of pantheism established within their own culture and influenced by the Hellenic traditions promoted under Alexander, few Persians were attracted to Christianity. Although by the end of the 1st century the earliest Christian
communities outside the Roman Empire were located in Persia, Christianity was still primarily the religion of minority ethnic groups, predominately Syrians. Because of its presentation as a universal cult demanding adherence, the new religion quickly encountered opposition from the official pagan cult. When Constantine I became Roman emperor early in the 4th century, he had a vision of a flaming cross; realizing this to be a Christian symbol, he was prompted to extend special privileges to the growing number of Christians living in his vast empire. Such preferential treatment by a neighboring Roman ruler caused Persian authorities to question the loyalty of Persian Christians. This nascent discrimination—a result of the continuing political hostility between Greeks and Romans—led to the long series of bloody persecutions begun in 340 under Shapur II (309–379). By the end of Shapur's reign, the Church in Persia was almost wholly cut off from Western contacts and developed in its own fashion. In 424 the Synod of Markabta effectively declared its autonomy. Late in the 5th century, while Zoroastrianism had established itself as the state religion, nestorianism became predominant among Persia's Christians. After the Arab invasion in 642 Islam was adopted by most of the populace. After this point Christians declined in numbers, although they engaged in missionary activity during the Middle Ages and even flourished for a time after the Mongol invasion (1220).
Catholic missionaries from the West labored in Persia with only slight success following the Middle Ages. Dominicans were active from the 14th to the 18th century. Augustianians, Carmelites, Capuchins, and Jesuits arrived in the 17th century; Vincentians, in 1839. The most sizeable increment to Christianity in Persia came fromthe immigration of Armenians, followers of monophy sitism, especially at the beginning of the 17th century, when large numbers of them were deported from their homeland. Armenian Rite Monophysites continued to constitute the largest group of Christians in Iran through the 20th century. While religious liberty was granted in 1834, Christians were massacred in Persia as late as 1918.
The Church under Islamic Fundamentalism . By the mid-1960s there were 28,000 Latin rite Catholics, 100,000 Armenian Catholics, and 13,000 Chaldean Catholics present in Iran. The Holy See maintained an inter-nuncio at Teheran, and Iran had an ambassador at the Vatican. However, Catholics still represented only a small segment of Iran's population, and the rise of Muslim activism in the coming years would mark them more strongly as outcasts within Iranian society.
In 1979 increasing political instability—the result of rising interference by Western businesses eager to profit from the nation's vast oil reserves—forced Iran's ruling shah into exile. On April 1, 1979, shortly after imposing martial law, Islamic fundamentalist Ruhollah Khomeini (1900–89) pronounced Iran an Islamic republic and began enforcement of strict Islamic traditions. Together with Zoroastrians and Jews, Christians were recognized as a "minority religion" under the new Iranian constitution of 1980; they were "free to act within their own canon" in religious matters, were extended protection of life and property, and were allowed representation in the republic's new parliament. However, the activities of non-Farsi-speaking religions such as Armenian Catholics were deemed "detrimental to the fundamental health of Islam" and as such were singled out for discriminatory treatment, including the prohibition of the importation of bibles into Iran. Over 70 Catholic missionaries left the country following the government's nationalization of church-run organizations, and the ability of Catholics to travel across Iran's borders was closely monitored.
While the government has become slightly more accepting of Western traditions since Khomeini's death in 1989, Iran continues to be plagued by religious intolerance, particularly against followers of the outlawed Baha’i faith, who were declared to have committed "crimes against God." Iran's actions against religious minorities prompted statements of concern from the U.S. State Department as late as 2000. In addition, in March 1999 Pope John Paul II received Iranian President Mohammed Khatami at the Vatican to discuss means of improving relations between Muslims and Christians.
Bibliography: d. attwater, The Christian Churches of the East, 2 v. (rev. ed. Milwaukee 1961–62). r. etteldorf, The Catholic Church in the Middle East (New York 1959). n. r. keddie, Iran: Religion, Politics, and Society, (London 1990). r. mayer and w. de vries, Lexicon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiburg 1957–65) 8:283–287. Bilan du Monde. Encyclopédie catholique du monde chrétien, 2 v. (2d ed. Tournai 1964) 2:490–495.
[t. p. joyce/eds.]