The Christians


The Nestorian Christians

According to Christian records this sect entered Iran from the west towards the end of the first Century AD and after facing long periods of persecution and harassment its members gradually spread to other parts of Iran, and particularly to western Iran including Hadyābineh (Adyāben), the Ibn Omar Island, and Mesopotamia, during the periods in which religious freedom was recognized in the country. Moreover, when the council of Christians was held in Ctesiphon, the Sasanid King Yazdgerd I, declared Christianity as one of the lawful religions of Iran and recognized the archbishop of Ctesiphon as the head of the Christian community of Iran. In the 7th Century AD, the Assyrian Church of Iran dropped the application of the term “Theotokos” (meaning: “Mother of God”) for Mary, the Virgin Mother of Jesus (‘a), as well as a belief in the dual nature (divine and human) of Jesus, following which it came to be known as the Eastern Syriac Church or the Nestorian Church. From this time onwards until the advent of Islam in Iran and despite the presence of other Christian communities like the Ya’qubi (Jacobite) sect/Church that believed in the theory of monophysitism, Nestorian Christianity spread in Iran and not only had many followers in the western regions of the country but also had followers in the central region, the coastal areas of the Caspian Sea, Khorāsān, Herāt, and in many cities of Central Asia. According to Tha’ālebi, when Yazdgerd III was killed in Marv it was the bishop of that region who had found his body and had it buried.

The western regions of Iran, Hireh, Mesopotamia, and Jazireh (or Yazirah) where among the first Iranian territories that were conquered by the Muslim troops. The inhabitants of these regions where mostly of Christian faith who signed peace treaties with the Muslims and agreed to pay the jizyah and other taxes ad in this way became dhimmi non-Muslims and came under the protection of the Islamic government while their lives, properties, and churches were duly respected. During the period of the “Kholafā-ye Rāshedin” (the first four caliphs) and consequently during the reign of the Ummayids these Christians were free to administer the affairs of their own community and to practice their religious rites and ceremonies as long as they paid the jizyah and other taxes and did not create any disturbance in the general public order of society. In the years that followed, not only did the Muslims protect the Christian educational centers of Nasibayn, Jondi Shāpur and Marv, but they also encouraged people to go for training to these centers in order to become accountants, medical doctors, state secretaries, and teachers. During these periods and even for many years that followed the Nasturi Christian community was considered to be an independent community, the internal affairs of which were administered by the archbishop of the community in accordance with their own religious and personal laws. The archbishop was selected by the members of the community and his selection was sent for approval to the caliph.

Following the coming into power of the Abbasids and particularly during the reign of Ma’mun, the Iranian Christians penetrated into the caliphate more than ever before. The seat of the archbishop was transferred from Ctesiphon and gained closer association with the caliphate. It was during the same time that “Jerjis bin Bakhtishu’”, who was a medical doctor in the Jondi Shāpur University, was summoned to Baghdad and was appointed as the personal physician of the Abbasid caliph; Mansoor, a position that remained in his household for six consecutive generations. Moreover, in the Bayt al-Hekmah (lit.: “The Academy of Knowledge”) of Baghdad that was established during the reign of Ma’mun in the year 218 Ah/833 AD and whose administrative executive was a Christian called Honayn bin Eshāq, many Christians were engaged in translating works of philosophy, medicine, science, and culture from the Greek language into Arabic.

Meanwhile, the propagation activities of the Nestorian church that had been launched since the 5th Century AD came to gain extensive momentum and missionaries came to be sent eastwards among the Turk, Tātār, and Mongol migrants as well as the quasi migrant tribes and as far as India, China, and Tibet. As a result of these missionary activities, six new episcopal centers were established in Rey, Marv, Samarqand, Kashgar, Tangut, and Chang’an. While the propagation activities in Tibet were administered by the patriarch of Tangut, the patriarch of Chang’an was in charge of the same in China. These activities had also resulted in the extensive inclination of the Mongol tribes towards Christianity. Although the Abbasid caliph, Mansur, had issued a decree imposing certain limitations on the clothing, commutation, education, etc. of the dhimmi non-Muslims, these limitations that were enforced at times during the reigns of the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties were generally temporary and were confined to large cities. Moreover, repeated issuances of such decrees prove that they were not enforced continually.
The Buyid rulers, too, had adopted a compromising policy towards the Christians and the other religious minorities. Emād al-Doleh had appointed a number of Christians in his administration and Azad al-Doleh had appointed a Christian called Nasr bin Hārun as his minister while he was at the peak of power.

Although the Seljuqs, owing to their fanatic Sunni beliefs, had caused some problems for the Christians during their reign in Iran, because of their confrontations with the Byzantine Empire and because of the involvement of such Iranian elite as Khwājeh Nezām al-Molk in the political and administrative affairs of the country, the Christians did not face any significant difficulties.
The Mongol invasion of Iran and their domination over the western Iranian territories raised a lot of hope among the Christian community of Iran since many Mongolian tribes had in the past converted into Christianity as a result of the missionary activities of the Nestorian Christians while owing to inter tribal marriages, Christianity had also penetrated into Genghis Khan’s family and tribe. Both Hulagu’s mother (Sarquqtini Beigi) and wife (Doquz Khātun) were Christian. Moreover even Jermāghun, the commander of the Mongol army in Iran, had Christian inclinations and in Hulāgu’s military expeditions to Iraq most of the forces were recruited from among the Christians. All these factors had made the Iranian Christians as well as the Christians of the West hope for the establishment of a Christian government in Iran in replacement of the existing Islamic rule.

When Baghdad was conquered by Hulāgu’s forces the Christians gathered in the great church of that city and, thus, managed to retain their houses and escape massacre. Following Hulāgu’s rule over Baghdad, Mākikhā, the batrerik (head priest) of the Nestorians became a dignitary in the city and on Hulagu’s command the Minor Davātdār’s palace that was built on the bank of River Tigris was put at his disposal. During the reigns of the Ilkhanid Mongols viz. Abāqā, Tagudār, Giyok, and Arghun, the Iranian Christians enjoyed greater freedom as well as many more privileges as compared to the Muslims. As per historical records, Arghun had issued an instruction prohibiting Muslims from being appointed to administrative jobs. Furthermore, the close association between the Mongols and the Roman Catholic Church had resulted in the dispatching of a large number of missionaries to the Iranian Christian communities living in Tabriz, Marāgheh, Dehkhwārqān, Sivās, and Soltāniyeh regions. However, these missionaries did not gain much success and with the outbreak of Tamerlane’s invasions and the subsequent plague that followed these invasions in the above mentioned regions they had to disperse to other places.
However, when Ghazan Khan embraced Islam the situation altered all of a sudden and the Iranian Christians lost their powerful supporters. Ghazan Khan commanded his men to destroy all the non-Muslim places of worship including Buddhist temples, Zoroastrian fire temples, Christian churches, and Jewish synagogues. Subsequently, the Jews and the Christians were ordered to wear distinct clothes or a zonnār (a girdle distinguishing the Christians or Jews from the Muslims). During the ensuing rebellions Bishop Yahbā Lāheh was injured and imprisoned and the churches of Marāgheh and Tabriz were plundered and destroyed.

In the following years the Arab and Kurdish Muslims took advantage of the situation and avenged the undue oppression that they had faced earlier at the hands of the Christians. During these retaliations a group of Nestorian Christians were killed and many of them were held captive. When Teimur (Tamerlane) invaded and conquered Iran, both, the Iranian Muslims and Christians were inflicted to the same degree in his devastating attacks. As a result of Tamerlane’s attacks the Nestorian church of Iran collapsed and the disintegrated Christian community took refuge in the mountainous regions of west and southwest Iran to the extent that according to the author of the book, the “Jahāngoshāye Khāqān” (lit.: “The World Conquering Emperor”) during the uprising of the Safavid king, Shah Esmā’il, groups of the Iranian Christians lived in Āzarbāyjān, Arān, and Moghān.

During the period of the Safavid rule disagreements erupted among two groups of the Nestorian Christians of Iran over the selection of the batrerik (the head priest) in 958 AH/1551 AD. Subsequently, since both these two groups wished to win the support f the Pope in Rome both of them declared their allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church and thereafter each group established its own United Chaldean Church in Mosul and Orumiyeh. The remaining Nestorian Christians who continued to preserve their independence established their own episcopal center in Orumiyeh. However, in the course of time the relations of the first two groups were severed with Rome and following a series of developments in the 19th Century the episcopal center of the United Chaldean Church was established in Salmās while the episcopal center of the Independent Assyrian church came to be stationed in Orumiyeh.

During the reign of the Qajar Dynasty the Nestorian Christians were settled in the Salmās region near the Turkish border as well as in the plains of Orumiyeh. Most of these Christians were agriculturists and like the Muslims had to pay heavy taxes to the government and, thus, lived under very stringent economic conditions. The enforcement of some unjust laws on them such as the need to wear a particular type of distinct clothing, the non-acceptance of their testimony in the courts of law, a lack of permission for them to ride on horses, and the inheritance of a deceased Christian to be transferred to that member of the family who had converted to Islam became a heavy burden on this community and prompted groups of them to migrate to Russia to save themselves from the existing situation.

The first Christian missionaries that began their activities from 1830s onwards in the various regions of Āzarbāyjān, and Tabriz and Orumiyeh in particular, were mainly Roman Catholics as well as American and British Protestants and more often than not there was rivalry and conflict between these two groups. The Catholics aimed at inducing conversions and adding to their number of followers while the Protestants were concerned with spreading their teaching among the Christians. The Protestants had established schools in Orumiyeh and the adjoining areas and were engaged in teaching and training students. As a result of the activities of the Protestant Christians such as the establishment of cultural centers, hospitals, and printing presses as well as the publication of books and periodicals, the Iranian Assyrian community entered a new phase of its social life. While the Catholics referred to the Christians who had joined the Roman Church as the Chaldeans, the Protestants called the Christians who had accepted Protestantism as the Assyrian Christians. The term “Assyrian” came to be welcomed and accepted by the Nestorian Christians and it distinguished them the other Christian sects of Iran during the 19th and the 20th Centuries. According to the current Iranian Constitutional Law the Iranian Assyrians have their own representative in the Islamic Consultative Assembly (the Majles).

The Armenian Christians

 

Armenia, the original home of the Armenian Christians, which is situated to the northwest of Iran and was one of the satrapies of Iran at the time of the Achamenian rule and for centuries was, before the advent of Islam, a subject of dispute and conflict between the Armenians who had converted into Christianity and the Iranian governments, on the one hand, and the Iranian and Roman empires on the other. Christianity arrived in the Armenian land through the efforts of “St. Gregory the Illuminator” in the 3rd Century AD and later became the official religion of Armenia towards the early 4th Century AD following which the Armenian church recognized the three church councils of Niqhiyeh (328 AD), Constantinople (381 AD), and Efesus (431 AD).
Following the advent of Islam in Iran, the first time that the Muslim troops launched their attacks on the Armenian was in the year 20 AH/641 AD, and subsequently, despite occasional rebellions it remained under the reigns of the Ummayid and Abbasid caliphates until the 5th Century AH/11th Century AD throughout which the Armenian people paid the jizyah to the central government. According to some historians like Estakhri, Moqaddasi, Ibn Huqal, and the author of the “Hodud al-Āalm” during the 4th Century AH/10th Century AD this region was very affluent and various types of merchandise were exported from it to various parts of the world.

Following the collapse of the Abbasid rule, Armenia came under the rule of the Seljuqs (426AH/1035AD), the Khwārazm Shahs (622 AH/1225 AD), the Mongols (626 AH/1229 AD), the Timurids (802 AH/1400 AD), and the Qarah Qoyunlu and Āq Qoyunlu Turkmen. Following the rise of the Safavids to power in the 10th Century AH/16th Century AD Armenia became the battleground of the struggles between the two Ottoman and Safavid empires and a number of wars took place between the two for annexing Armenia to their own empire.

In the course of the war launched by Shah Abbas I on the Ottoman Empire in the year 1012 AH/1603 AD he reinstated Tabriz, Nakhjavān, Iravān (Yerevan) to the Iranian territories and then advanced towards Central Armenia and Erzurum (also Erzerum). However, on receiving the news of a retaliatory attack by the great Ottoman army the Shāh decided to retreat and, on his way back, destroyed many cities and villages and in order to avail of the skills and competencies of the Armenians, moved thousands of Armenian families to Iran and made most of them settle in Esfahān and on the banks of Zāyandeh Rud River in the year 1013AH/1604 AD. Subsequently, the Armenians built the Jolfa locality in Esfahan and with all kinds of aid and support that they received from Shah Abbās, they built a number of churches there and also made a lot of efforts towards its progress. Many Europeans who were in Iran during the Safavid rule have given detailed accounts of Jolfa, its progress, and the style of living of the Armenian during those days.

Shah Abbās granted special privileges to the Armenians and by giving them interest-free loans, reducing their taxes, and granting them the right to the silk trade paved the path for their economic progress. As a result of these facilities, the Armenians became very active in the areas of trade and industry and gradually came to commanding a large share in the Iranian economy. Moreover, they were free to indulge in their own religious practices and since the tax collector who was in charge of their taxes halied from among themselves, they were considered to be a separate community. The Armenians were pioneers in importing certain industries to Iran. For instance, according to Tavarniyeh, the first press machine was brought to Iran by an Armenian by the name of “Ya’ghub Zhān (or Jacob John)” in the year 1051 AH/1641 AD.

On the other hand, the inclination shown by Shah Abbās I towards establishing relations with the European countries paved the path for the entry of Christian missionaries into Iran. The first group of Christian missionaries to enter Iran was the Portuguese Augustan group that was sent to Iran in 1007 AH/1598 AD and was followed by the Karmalis, the Roman Catholics, the French Kaposans, and the Jesuits who settled in Esfahān and began their missionary activities among the Armenians. However, owing to the attitude of the Armenians in preserving their own culture and traditional religion these missionaries did not gain much success and their activities were more or less ineffective. Shah Abbas’s successors paid less attention to the Armenians and reduced their privileges and instead added to their taxes such that at the time of Shardon’s stay in Esfahān (during the reign of Shah Soleymān) the Armenians no longer possessed the wealth and facilities that they enjoyed earlier and Jolfa lad lost its former glamour and population.

At the time of the onslaught of the Afghans in Esfahān during the reign of Shah Soltān Hoseyn, like GasaYerevan, Tabriz, Dashti, Qārāgol, and Kachar, the Jolfa and other Armenian localities of Esfahān were among the first localities to face plunder and massacres and since the people of Jolfā were left defenseless by the government they were compelled to pay huge sums to the Afghans in order to save their lives.

When Nāder Shah Afshār came into power, he managed to free the Qareh Bāgh, Ganjeh, Barda’, and Yerevan regions and treated the Armenians with compassion and even accepted to meet Abraham, the bishop of the Armenians in his camp near the Achmiyadzin Church. He then participated in a religious ceremony of the Armenians in their church on the invitation of Bishop Abraham and presented the church with some gifts. During his reign, Nāder Shah showed a lot of tolerance towards the Christian citizens of the country and allowed the Christian missionaries to stay on in Iran. As a result of the activities of these missionaries some Armenians became Catholics and at the same time four catholic churches were established in the Jolfa area of Esfahān. Another step taken by Nāder Shah was that he called on some Christian (both Catholic and Armenian Orthodox), Jew, and Muslim scholars to translate the Old Testament as well as the New Testament into the Persian language. It is also worth mentioning that a large part of Nāder Shah’s army comprised Armenian soldiers.

The Armenians of the central parts of Iran who had fled from Esfahān and Shirāz to Iraq and other regions following the attacks of the Afghans and owing to the limitations enforced on them by Nāder’s successors and the conflicts between the Zands and the Qajars, once again returned to Esfahān and Shirāz on the invitation of Karim Khān Zand, who even gave them villages for settlement after he came to power and managed to establish peace and order in the country.
During the Qajar period and as a result of the various problems faced by the country the Christian population of Iran, too, reduced considerably and many Christians migrated to India and England in search of jobs and better economic conditions. Nevertheless, the Iranian Armenians who had stayed back in the Āzarbāyjān, Gilān, Esfahān, and Shirāz regions continued to command a significant share in the industrial activities of Iran and in economic and trade relations with the European countries. Moreover, a number of Armenians even rose to high official posts in government organizations. For instance, Manuchehr Khan Mo’tamed al-Doleh, who was an Armenian Christian, was appointed as the governor of Gilān, Fārs, Kermānshāh, and Esfahān and was also one of the officials who played a role in the course of the negotiations that led to the Treaty of Turkmanchāi (Torkaman). Mo’tamed al-Doleh’s nephews, Mirzā Rostam Khan, Aghālor Khan, and Soleymān Khan, too, held important positions in the government. However, the most renowned Armenian personality of this period was the famous politician, thinker and writer, Mirza Malkam Khan.

The Iranian Armenians also played an active role in the Constitutional Movement. Armenian volunteers who had joined the movement from beyond the Caucasus as well the eastern part of Armenia – that was under the Ottoman occupation at that time – came to assist their counterpart Muslim freedom fighters while the armed Armenian units who were under the command of Ārshāk Gāfāfiyān participated in defending Tabriz under the leadership of Sattār Khan. During the Movement, Khan Dāvitiyān who was the commander of a group of Armenian volunteers, entered Tehran victoriously along with Sepahdār Tonkāboni and Sardār As’ad, after a successful battle in the Rasht City, and was appointed the commander-in-chief on the armed forces. Khan Dāvitiyān ultimately lost his life in a battle with the anti-revolutionaries in Hamadān.
According to the Constitutional Law of the Islamic Republic of Iran – like the other religious minorities – the Jews, the Zoroastrians, and the Assyrians, the Armenians, too, enjoy certain rights and are free to indulge in their own religious ceremonies and rites and follow their own personal laws as per the tenets of their religion. The Armenians of north and south Iran have their own separate representatives in the Islamic Consultative Assembly (Majles) of the Islamic Republic of Iran.[1]



[1] Lajevardi , Fatemeh ” Iran Entry ” The Great Islamic Encyclopedia . Ed. Kazem Musavi Bojnourdi.Tehran: The Center of Great Islamic Encyclopaedia , 1989-, V.10 , pp.598 – 602