The State Religion, as stated in Article 12 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic, is the Twelver Shia Islam. The same Article states that the other Muslim denominations – Hanafi, Shafii, Maliki, Hanbali and Zaydi – enjoy full freedom to practice their religious beliefs.
Article 13 of the Constitution states that “the Iranian Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians are the only recognized religious minorities with the right to perform their religious rites within the Islamic laws.”
Official recognition under the Constitution therefore allows minorities to celebrate their rituals, to teach their language and culture in their schools, and to have and apply their personal statutes in matters such as marriage, divorce and inheritance.
These religions also have their official representatives in the Assembly of the Islamic Council (Parliament), currently composed of 290 members. There are five representatives of minorities: one each for the Zoroastrians, Jews and Assyrian-Chaldean Christians, and two for the Armenians, one each for the Armenians of the North and for those of the South of Iran.
Despite this recognition as interpreted within the framework and limits of Islamic law, Christians and other minorities continue to be discriminated against, for example, in their access to government jobs, a career military, the judiciary and the diplomatic service.
Mixed marriages are not permitted if the Christian does not convert to Islam, and the children of mixed marriages, even if baptised at birth, are always considered Muslims. Bibles in Farsi are difficult to find (the Iranian Bible Society was closed in 1990) and the teaching of various religious minority in schools is regulated by a manual prepared by the Ministry of Education.
Local Christians therefore are seen to be and they feel second class citizens in their own country.
Article 19 of the Constitution should be noted here: “The people of Iran, whatever their ethnic or tribal origin, enjoy equal rights: skin colour, race, language or other characteristics do not constitute grounds of privilege or discrimination”.
The word “religion” is missing in the Article and not as a result of a casual omission because it is clear that those who are not followers of the Shia “do not enjoy equal rights”.
In confirmation, Article 20 states: “In accordance with the Islamic norms all individual citizens of the nation, both men and women, are equal under the protection of the law and enjoy all the human, political, economic, social and cultural rights”. These “Islamic norms” are applied, for example, in cases of inheritance.
It should be noted also that, except for some cases of converts and members of other religious minorities (Jews and Zoroastrians), there is a very close link between religion and ethnicity: to be Armenian or Assyrian or Chaldean etc. generally also means being considered a Christian. All others are automatically considered Muslim. In Christian environments, converts from Islam are called “Muslims-born Christian”.
For Islam, these people are apostates and their crime is considered a capital offence. In September 2008, the Iranian parliament passed a new penal code stipulating the death penalty for apostates and those who leave Islam.
The proposal has not yet been ratified by the Guardian Council, but it demonstrates the Regime’s attitude towards apostasy and conversions, and provides further evidence that in Iran there is freedom of worship, but not full religious freedom.
In recent years, pressure on churches and religious leaders has increased. Several Protestant churches in Tehran and in the provinces have been closed, and almost all religious leaders have been prevented from celebrating in the Persian language.
From 1979 to today, the presence of Christians has shrunk significantly.
At the beginning of the Revolution there were about 300,000 Christians in a population of 42 million. There are now less than 100,000 Christians (perhaps only 80,000) out of a total population of 78 million.
The majority of these Christians belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church (65,000-70,000). The Assyrian Church of the East (6,000) is next, followed by the Russian and the Greek-Orthodox Churches, which have very few believers. Protestants are mostly members of the Episcopal Church, Evangelical Church and the Assemblies of God.
Many pastors from these churches have left the country and founded Farsi-speaking communities in Europe, the US and Canada. These communities are very active on the internet and on satellite TV stations. They broadcast in Farsi and are widely watched in Iran.
Christian Catholics are divided into three rites: the Assyrian-Chaldean, Armenian and Latin, and five dioceses (three of the Assyrian-Chaldean rite are in Tehran, Urmia-Salmas and Ahwaz, one of the Armenian rite and the Latin rite).
The Catholic population is very small. The two Assyrian-Chaldean bishops claim that their respective communities have between 1,500 and 2,000 members, while the Latins, including foreigners working temporarily in Iran, number about 2,000. The Catholics of the three rites and of the five dioceses do not exceed 7,000, i.e. about 10% of the entire Christian community (Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant) and 0.01% of the total population of Iran.
The Catholic Church now has three bishops, one apostolic administrator, 12 priests, 14 nuns and two consecrated laymen.
There are seven churches in Tehran (one is Armenian, two are Assyrian-Chaldean and four are Latin), an Assyrian-Chaldean church in Urmia and another in Hamedan, a Latin one in Isfahan and another in Tabriz. Further churches of the Assyrian-Chaldean diocese were opened in other cities, such as Ahwaz, Qazvin, Kermanshah and other villages surrounding Salmas, but these communities do not have resident priests and religious.
After the Islamic Revolution in the summer of 1981 almost two thirds of the foreign priests and nuns were forced to leave the country. But the weakness that resulted in the following years favoured new vocations. In last two decades, vocations have arose for six new Daughters of Charity, three missionary nuns of the Holy Spirit, four new priests of the Assyrian-Chaldean Church, a Lazarist priest of the Assyrian-Chaldean rite, a Salesian priest of the Armenian rite and a consecrated woman.
A phenomenon that continues to deeply undermine the Christian situation in Iran is the “migration fever”, driving many families to leave the country in search of a better future, generally in Christian countries. There have been three phases of migration in particular: the first during the war between Iran and Iraq, when many young people left the country to avoid having to go to the front; the second in the mid-1990s and the third movement which began in 2005.