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Christians in Persia have always been a minority, but their roots are extensive, albeit obscure. According to the Acts of the Apostles, Parthians, Medes and Elamites — Persians all — were present on the day of Pentecost. Early Christian tradition credits Sts. Bartholomew, Simon, Thaddeus and Thomas with the evangelization of Persia. And Armenian Christians believe Bartholomew, Simon and Thaddeus died there.

Despite some hostility from Zoroastrian elites, Christianity gained a foothold in Persia by the end of the third century, especially among the Syriac-speaking minority. But when the Roman emperor Constantine I began to favor Christianity in the early fourth century, the Persians suspected Christians of collusion with the Roman enemy and persecuted them.

Persia’s Christians eventually turned away from the Roman west and looked east, placing themselves in the year 410 under the leadership of the metropolitan archbishop of Seleucia-Ctesiphon. Commonly referred to as the Church of the East, it remained at first in communion with the churches of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. But by the late fifth century, the Church of the East parted ways with the rest of the Christian world and adopted a Christology largely condemned by it.

Arab invaders in the seventh century established Islam in Persia, which became 
the dominant religion, all but eradicating the Zoroastrian faith practiced by Persians for more than a millennium. Yet, the Church of the East grew under Islamic rule. Until the devastating wars of Timur the Lame in the 14th century, the church had eparchies throughout the Far East.

An influx of Armenian Apostolic Christians — a 17th-century shah granted them a monopoly of the realm’s emerging silk trade — displaced the Church of the East as the most influential Christian community in Persia. Armenians continued to play a pivotal role in modern Iran’s economic life until the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979.

Demographics. First settled by Aryan peoples more than 3,000 years ago, Iran is considered among the oldest civilizations in the world. Iran’s estimated 73 million people belong to a number of ethnic groups — ethnic Persians make up just 51 percent of the population. Other significant communities include Azeris, Mazandaranis, Kurds and Armenians. Despite this diversity, Farsi is the official language and spoken throughout.

The majority of the population is Muslim, 89 percent of whom is Shiite and 9 percent Sunni. About 0.5 percent of the population is Christian. Before the Islamic Revolution, Christians composed 1.5 percent of the country. Most observers believe up to 250,000 Armenian Apostolic Christians remain. Catholics, who total some 19,000 people, include Armenians, Chaldeans and Latins. Up to 20,000 Assyrian Christians and several thousand Anglican and evangelical Protestants live in Iran.

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Tags: Middle East Christians Armenian Apostolic Church Emigration Iran