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Christianity in Iran, a Brief History
Last Updated: October, 2009

Christianity in pre-Islamic Iran, the Parthian Era


Christianity arrived in Iran during the Parthian (Ashkanian) period (247 BC to AD 228). In the book of ‘Acts of Apostles' (chapter II, V.9) first century AD, it is mentioned that on "the Day of Pentecost (part of harvest festival observed by early Christians) at Jerusalem there were "Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and inhabitants of Mesopotamia". Early Christian records mention that Peter and Thomas preached the Gospel to the Parthians and men such as Thaddaeus, Bartholomew, and Addeus, evangelized the races of Mesopotamia and Persia, and that Mari, a noble Persian convert, succeeded Addeus in the government of the Persian Christian communities. The bishops, Abrês, Abraham, Jacob, Ahadabuhi, Tomarsa, Shahlufa, and finally Bishop Papa succeeded him at the end of the Third Century. Syriac documents also indicate that towards the beginning of the Third Century the Christians in the Persian territories had some three hundred and sixty churches, and many martyrs.

Arbela, fifty miles east of river Tigris (Dejleh) and the capital of Adiabene—a small Persian border kingdom—was the earliest center of Christianity in Iran (present day Iraq). There was a large concentration of Jews in Arbela and in Nisibis in eastern Mesopotamia and while some Jews were instrumental in spreading Christianity, others opposed the new faith. The First century Jewish historian Josephus, mentions that a king of Adiabene accepted Judaism about AD 36. Such a conversion made Arbela a natural center for Jewish Christian mission at an early date. Nisibis another major city of the area was also the seat of a Jewish Academy of learning.

Christianity spread in both villages and cities and by the end of the Parthian period (AD 225), Christian communities were settled all the way from Edessa, an important missionary center, to Afghanistan. The Chronicles of Arbela report that by this time there were already more than twenty bishops in Persia and Christians had already penetrated Arabia and Central Asia.

Parthian Kings were tolerant of other religions and Christianity kept slowly but steadily advancing in various parts of the empire. At the time of the persecution of Christians in Rome, many sought refuge in Iran and were given protection by the Iranian rulers. Though thousands of Persians embraced Christianity, Persia remained Zoroastrian with many adhering to the Cult of Mithra. However, there never arose an indigenous Persian Church, worshipping in the Persian language. The Persian Church was of Syrian origin, traditions and tendencies and for about three centuries, regarded Antioch (in Syria) as the center of its faith and the seat of authority.


Christianity and Christians in Iran, the Sasanian Era

With the Sasanians (AD 226-641), Christianity (and other religions) suffered resentment. Its chief opponents were the Zoroastrian Magi and priestly schools, as well as some Jews. When the Roman emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion in Rome (AD 312) and himself the sovereign of all Christians, the new fate became associated with Iran's archenemy. The conversion of Armenians into Christianity and the defection of some Armenian army units to Rome made matters worse. Religious and national feelings were united and paved the ground for future persecutions that continued in Persia for a century after they had ceased in Rome, where they started in the first place.

In general, the Sasanian kings championed Zoroastrianism, and though some did not mind Christianity, the national feeling always clung to the ancient creed. Nevertheless, Christianity kept steadily growing partly due to the deportation of several hundred thousand Christian inhabitants of Roman Syria, Cilicia and Cappadocia by Shapur I (240-270AD). The deportees were settled in Mesopotamia, Persis (Pars) and Parthia. The decision was based on economic and demographic reasons, but unintentionally promoted the spread of the new faith. New cities and settlements in fertile but sparsely populated regions such as Khuzistan and Meshan were built. Many Christians were employed in big construction projects and had a large number of skilled workers and craftsmen among them. The city soon became a significant cultural and educational center with the famous library and the University of Jundaishapour, home to scholars from all over including many Christian and Jewish scholars. It also became the center of silk production in Iran with many Christians involving in every aspect of silk production, management and marketing.

This period of peace and prosperity for the Christian community lasted until the reign of Bahram II (276-293AD). First persecutions included that of Bahram's Christian concubine Candida, one of the first Persian Martyrs. The persecutions were supported and even promoted by the powerful high priest, Kirdir, who in one inscription declares how Ahriman and the idols suffered great blows and continues as follows: "and the Jews (Yahud), Buddhists (Shaman), Hindus (Brahman), Nazarenes (Nasara), Christians (Kristiyan), Baptists (Makdag) and Manicheans (Zandik) were smashed in the empire, their idols destroyed, and the habitations of the idols annihilated and turned into abodes and seats of the gods".


But, these persecutions remained exceptions compared to the Fourth Century when the systematic harassment of Christians began. Originally, Christianity had spread among the Jews and the Syrians. But, by the beginning of the fourth century, increasing numbers of Persians were attracted to Christianity. For such converts, even during peaceful times, membership in the church could mean loss of family, property, civil rights and even death. Some persecutions under Shapur II (309-379AD) were as horrid as those administered by the Roman Emperor Diocletian who used to burn or feed the Christians alive to wild beasts, or have them killed publicly at the games by the gladiators.

Towards the beginning of the fourth century, the head of the Persian Church selected the city of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, the capital of the Persian Empire, as his center of authority (Ctesiphon metropolitan). Under his jurisdiction were several bishops, one of them, Yohannan bar Maryam of Arebela was present at the very important Council of Nicaea (325 AD) in Rome. In 340 or 341 AD, the new metropolitan (Archbishop) of Ctesiphon, Shem'on (Simeon) bar Sabba'e, was urged by Shapur II to collect a special tax from the Christians to finance the costs of war against Rome. His refusal was the prelude to the systematic persecution of Christians. In the Martyrology of Simeon, Shapur is quoted as accusing the bishop of having political motives for his policies. The Persian sage, Aphrahat, at the time the most important intellectual representative of Christianity in Iran, in his Demonstrations compares Constantine with good and the proud Shapur with forces of evil.

Aphrahat was an Assyrian born in northern Mesopotamia in the region of Adiabene and was a monk, probably a bishop. His only surviving work Demonstrations contains 23 treatises, which he wrote between AD 337 and AD 345. The first ten chapters of Demonstrations deal with ten specific aspects of Christian life and doctrine such as faith, fasting, prayer and humbleness. In this work, he displays a very simple faith, firmly centered on the Scriptures. For him a "Christian life must be a life of unrelenting warfare between believers and the devil. The most dangerous instrument of satanic temptation is a woman; the safest path for man, therefore, is to renounce the love of a woman, and live alone for Christ. As for women, their highest calling is to espouse virginity and thus rob the devil of his tool for temptation. Since it was not possible for all to remain celibate, Christians may marry, but if they do, it might be best to marry before baptism". In his address to the monks he recommends that "if a monk desires, that a woman bound by celibacy, should dwell with him, it would be better for both parties to marry and live openly together" (Demonstrations VI.4). His ideas were picked up over a century later when the church had to make a decision about celibate clergy.

Shapur was not the only enemy; in the Chronicles of Arbela, Christians blame Magi, Jews and Manicheans for promoting hatred against Christians and calling them Roman spies. In fact, some Zoroastrian authorities such as mogbed and rad (titles in priestly hierarchy) are named for being directly involved in interrogating and convicting Christians at times of persecutions (Syriac Acts of Martyrs). Some Christian accounts of martyrdom show anti-Jewish tendency, and the same is true of some writings of the Eastern Church fathers. Whether those Christians had political motives or not, needs more research, however surviving literature indicates that they indeed regarded their faith as superior. Their world was not divided between Romans and Iranians but between 'people of God' and the 'outsiders' or 'non believers'. In their literature they identify themselves as 'pure ones', 'just ones' or 'people of God'. Distinctions are made between ethnic Christians, nasraye and deported ones and their descendants called kristyane. They also referred to themselves as misihaye (those who believe in Messiah (Massih).

Shapur's peace treaty with Emperor Jovian halted the persecutions for a time (AD363). By this treaty, Mesopotamia and Armenia came under the control of Persia. In 409 AD, the Persian king Yazdegard I, by an edict of toleration brought an end, for a time, to the persecution of Christians. He had a Jewish wife, was well disposed towards both Judaism and Christianity, and was in fact called the 'Christian King' by some. The edict allowed Christians to worship publicly and to build churches. The peace helped the Christian community to re-organize its community. Tensions eased further when Iranian Christians created their own ecclesiastical organizations with its own hierarchy and eventually became independent from the Western Church.

Though Rome and Constantinople were the centers of the so-called 'Orthodox Christianity', many Christian groups, particularly those in Mesopotamia, opposed their policies and doctrines. In 410, a meeting of Christians was held at the Persian capital under the presidency of Mar Isaac, the bishop of Ctesiphon. An independent new Church was announced and the leader (metropolitan) was called 'Catholicos-Patriarch'. The council confirmed Mar Isaac as the first Catholicos and Archbishop of all the Orient.

The Synod (Ecclesiastical/Church council) also declared its adherence to the decision of the Council of Nicea in Rome and subscribed to the Nicene Creed. Though the church was not as of yet fully independent from Rome, Yazdegerd approved of the organization of the Persian church on this basis and issued an edict giving recognition to the Catholicos as the head of the Persian church. Christians in Iran received a definite standing among the population, with freedom to manage their own affairs, but were answerable to the state authorities through the Catholicos who became a civil as well as a religious head. The decree also dictated that the election of a Catholicos had to be approved by the king and he became king's nominee.

Early in Yazdegerd's reign, Maruthas, a Mesopotamia bishop, represented the Roman Emperor at the Persian Court. He was instrumental in re-organizing the Persian Church and spreading Christianity further in Iran and Nisibis became a strong Christian center. Later, in the reign of Yazdegerd, the Persian bishop, Abdas of Susa destroyed a Zoroastrian temple in the city; the king ordered the bishop to restore the building at his own expense. Abdas refused and the result was the order by the king to destroy all churches. Before long the destruction of churches developed into a general persecution, in which Abdas was one of the first martyrs. When Yazdegerd died in 420, and was succeeded by his son Bahram V, the persecution continued, and large numbers of Christians fled across the frontier into Roman territory. Bahram demanded the surrender of the Christian fugitives, and war was again declared against Rome in 422.

Although the latter half of the fourth and the beginning of the fifth century was a period of conflict in the Eastern provinces, the period was also a time of expansion for the Christian Church and of literary activity. This literary and ecclesiastical development led to the formation of a Syriac literature in Persia (Syriac being the liturgical language of the Persian Church), and ultimately of a Christian Persian literature. By 420, there were five metropolitans including two at Merv and Heart and Bishop Dadyeshu was elected Catholicos. He was imprisoned a year later and internal divisions and disputes were intensifying at the time amongst different Christian denominations.

During the rule of Bahram V (421-438), the third synod of the church introduced a radical change. The Synod of Dadyeshu met in 424 under the presidency of Mar Dadyeshu. The first synod of Isaac in 410 had decided that the Catholicos of Seleucia-Ctesiphon would be supreme among the bishops of the East. The Synod of Dadyeshu decided that the Catholicos should be the sole head of the Persian church with no one above him. In particular, it was laid down that "easterners shall not complain of their Patriarch to the western Patriarchs; every case that cannot be settled by him shall await the tribunal of Christ."


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