A pertinent question indeed! What is the future of the Church in Iran? And what is its state today? It was for this reason that we boarded an aeroplane for Tehran. The cabin foreshadowed the atmosphere of the country both because of the widespread travellers' prayers after the security instructions had been read out and because of the many chadors abroad. This was an impression soon tempered on our arrival. At the airport, with an air of indifference, bearded officials stamped the passports of young Iranians with their hair tied behind their heads. In the streets of the capital city the coloured rusari, which leave people's hair largely uncovered, rivalled the blackmaqna'e which completely frame people's faces but which are still obligatory for everyone in the offices and in Muslim and Christian universities.
"Simon, son of John, do you really love me?", repeats the celebrant thinking perhaps of the few sheep that the successor of Peter found grazing in the country. Although disputed by some people, the official censuses are emblematic. Whereas the Iranian population has almost doubled during the years of the Islamic Republic, rising from thirty-five to sixty-eight million of inhabitants, the number of Christians has drastically decreased, with an absolute decline of over a half: in two decades from 5 (16 thousand in 176) to 1 in every thousand (78 thousand in 1996). Today, the most optimistic estimates indicate a total of about 100,000 Christians of whom 80,000 are Gregorian Armenians, 8,000 are Catholic Assyrian-Chaldeans, with the same number of Orthodox, 5,000 Protestants, 2,000 Latins and 500 Catholic Armenians. A survey carried out by a Catholic priest taking church registers as his point of departure confirms this drastic fall. "The number of weddings celebrated in my dioceses in 1976, 1986 and 1996 was respectively 54, 20 and 13", he observes. "The baptisms of the same years", he goes on, "were 150, 117 and 36. The funerals were 3, 101 and 97". The conclusion? "This community runs the risk of extinction".
"This fall", observes Msgr. Garmou, "is due to a lower birth rate amongst Christians, but above all it is due to an emigration that accelerated after the Islamic revolution and the war with Iraq". Obviously, at the base of this phenomenon there have been human, cultural, socio-economic and historical reasons. But the fact that Christians belong to minorities that are marked out, in addition to religious faith, also by language and culture, has made them foreigners twice over in the eyes of the population. At the time of the monarchy, and despite the positive attitude of the Shah, the official nationalist approach certainly did not foster the integration of Christians in the country. This objective made even more difficult to reach by the Islamic revolution.
It is true that article 13 of the Constitution lays down that 'Zoroastrian, Jewish and Christian Iranians are the only religious minorities recognised as such and within the limits established by the law they are free to engage in their own religious rites and ceremonies, and to act according to their own canons in personal matters and religious instruction'. But article 14 of the same Constitution, although it stresses the duty of the state and all Muslims to 'treat non-Muslims in line with ethical norms and the principles of Islamic justice and fairness, and to respect their human rights', goes out of its way to warn that 'this principle applies to all those who abstain from taking part in conspiracies or activities against Islam and the Islamic Republic of Iran'. Article 19, lastly, states that 'all Iranians, whatever ethnic group they belong to, enjoy the same rights' and that 'colour, race and language offer no privileges'. Here there is no reference to religion.
"The rights of Christians are guaranteed by the Constitution. The point is that we often encounter difficulties in their application", observes Msgr. Sebouh Sarkissian, of Syrian origins, who for six years has been responsible for the Armenian-Gregorian Archbishopric of Tehran, a post that makes him the pastor of the largest Christian community in Iran.
For example? "Our Church", he answers, "has the right to pronounce sentences for the dissolution of marriages but when the spouses go to public offices the judges ask for the procedure to be engaged in again". We ask him if he encounters problems as regards the printing and distribution of religious material. "Not at all", he replies, "I have printed thirty-two thousand copies of the Gospel and nobody has ever said anything. Obviously if a book is in Farsi a permit is required. Every year we publish about ten books. One of the last, indeed, deals with the history of Armenia and its conflict-marked relationship conflict with what was then Persia". And to what point does the ethnic character of the Iranian Churches constitute a handicap for their mission? "Our chief concern is to maintain our traditions", he answers. "We do not encourage proselytising. Witness to the Gospel is reflected in the life of a Christian before it is preached in church. We do not live in the West. Iran in the final analysis is an Islamic state and it is up to us to be astute, as Christ, indeed, asks us to be".
This 'astuteness', we should remember, has in large measure saved the Armenians from the repression endured by other Christians. For example, they managed to obtain their confiscated schools, even though they had to accept the government appointment of Muslim directors. Such was not the case with the Latin Church which was suspected of sympathy for the West and whose school structures were dismantled during the first two years of the Islamic revolution: fourteen Catholic schools were closed (amongst which prestigious Jesuit schools run by Lazarists and Salesians), lodging houses and dispensaries were confiscated, and priests and nuns were expelled. "We are here because Christians should not be abandoned", a foreign nun who has lived in Iran for a number of years told me in confidence. "We strive to maintain what is essential in Christianity. Thank heaven we have seen an improvement in the situation: the state has moved from open hostility towards the Latin Church to a stage of moderation under Rafsanjani and then to greater openness under Khatami". How is this openness expressed? "The entry visas for the clergy are now easier to obtain, not least because a fixed number is in force one priest for each church. Obviously those who arrive can be counted on the fingers of one hand and they are not able to compensate for the expulsions of 1980 which affected 85% of the Catholic clergy. In addition, Christians are no longer portrayed by the authorities, as was previously the case, as 'guest' minorities or transient minorities".
However, nobody today denies that the Latin Church, led by Msgr. Ignazio Bedini, is in fact at the service of people who are passing through the country members of the diplomatic corps accredited in Tehran and Western businessmen. To these are added some naturalised families and the children of mixed couples who challenge, although not publicly, the Muslim orthodox notion that the children of a Muslim have to be Muslims.
"Many of the problems that we are experiencing today are the result of the Christians themselves, because of questions of power and privilege", a Catholic priest declares disconsolately. "The individual Churches", he goes on, "over the centuries cultivated a strong ethnic connotation in order to distinguish themselves from Islam. But rather than working for complementariness at the level of ecclesial services they sought to conserve as best as possible their own particular features and ended up by displaying their divisions". One way of escaping from these specific loyalties is ecumenism. We asked Msgr. Sarkissian how he expresses his noted regional and international ecumenical activity at a local level. "I often propose to my colleagues that they should hold meetings in Iran", he answers. "In 2002 the executive committee of the Council of the Churches of the Middle East (MECC) met here in Tehran. Once again, indeed at the beginning of this year, the young Christians of the Middle East chose Iran for their annual conference. In addition, obviously enough, there are the periodic meetings with the heads of the Christian Churches: the Chaldean Church, the Armenian-Catholic Church, the Protestant Church and the Assyrian-Protestant Church".
But a draft version of collaboration does not seem to have solved all the misunderstandings between the various communities. Msgr. Neshan Karakeheyan, of Greek origins, since February 2001 has been the Bishop of the small Armenian-Catholic community, a community that has been reduced to only one hundred and fifty families (and no priest) after the departure of a large number of faithful for America and Europe. "The Gregorians", laments the Bishop, "took advantage of our temporary absence to take over our school". Did you not ask the Gregorian Bishop to intervene? "Unfortunately he was not able to do anything because in the Gregorian community it is the Majles-e melli, the community council made up of members of the laity, who take the decisions. However, we were able to take back two schools thanks to the mediation of the Palestinian prelate Hylarion Cappucci, who has good relations with Iran". The seven hundred students, all of whom are Armenians because it is forbidden to have Muslims, follow lessons in Armenian and study the catechism as well the official curriculum.
The catechism is a reason for a shared protest on the part of all the Christians. The bookseller looks at us with an amazed air when he sees us take all the available editions of Ketob-e ta'limate dini, the textbook on religion for the exclusive use of the non-Islamic minorities. On the frontispiece there is always (as is the case with some parish halls) a photograph of Ayatollah Khomeini, a symbol of the new reality as well as of the control exercised by the Ministry of Islamic Guidance (Ershad) over religious teaching. "This textbook is clearly syncretistic", observes Mattia, an Assyrian-Chaldean lecturer. "For that matter", he adds, "in Iranian schools Islam permeates all the disciplines, from literature to language. In the catechism one has only to replace the word Khoda ('God' in Persian) with Allah, dìn ('religion') with Islam and nabi ('prophet') with Mohammed to understand that this is a veiled injection of Islam into the lessons of religion", which number five in elementary schools and three in secondary schools. Mattia also emphasises that the mark that students receive at their religious examination is awarded in part (50%) by the Church and in part (50%) by the government.
"We are not satisfied with the contents or the question-answer style of this book", says Msgr. Garmou. "This textbook was drawn up immediately after the revolution, in special circumstances, and should thus be changed. A new edition is currently being prepared by a team of experts from four Churches. We hope that we will obtain the approval of the authorities to put it in circulation by the next academic year". Many people complain that the teachers entrusted with religious teaching are not sufficiently trained. "Some of them", says Mrs. Karakeheyan, "only want to increase their salaries. One of them even stated in front of the students that Christ is not God!".
But Islam does not only permeate school disciplines it permeates every aspect of life in Iran. Turn on the TV and you encounter Shiite pilgrims beating their chests listening to the sad story of the murder of Imam Hussein in Karbala. Lift up the receiver of a telephone in a public phone box and you hear the exhortation of the same Imam: "if you have no religion, have at least a free spirit in this life". In Tehran giant posters of the 'martyrs' and heroes of the Islamic revolution occupy the principal points: Beheshti, Madani, Mofateh, but also the Egyptian Khaled Islambouli, the official author of the murder of Presidente Anwar al-Sadat. In front of the very central Armenian cathedral of St. Sergio, in Nejatollahi Street, a panel portrays the Mahdi, the Imam awaited by the Shiites, saddled on a horse. Above this panel is a sentence which reads: 'Christ will return together with the Mahdi and will establish justice everywhere'. In the courtyard of the cathedral a group of young Armenians are having a conversation. The dream of all of them is to build a future in Europe or America. Only Marina would like to remain in Iran "in order not to leave my parents on their own".
According to many people we talked to the dream of going elsewhere expresses the situation of a 'ghettoised' Church that has been reduced to surviving in an apparently spiritual and apostolic sterility in a country where freedom of worship and association is authorised only within places of worship. Msgr. Garmou does not hide his concern about the repercussions of the flight of Christians from Iraq, his country of origin, for the mission of the Church in Iran. "For us the Iraqi Church is what the Lebanon represents for the Christians of Syria and Jordan. If our areas behind the lines give way, what will happen to us?" Emigration affects this very small community at its vital points the elites and the young: over ten thousand departures over the last twenty-five years. The consequences are thus grave: the ageing and weakening of the local community, the difficulties that the girls have in finding a Christian husband, and the fall in priestly vocations.
"Today, our two seminarians are being trained, one in Rome and one in Paris. Thus in July we will celebrate in Tehran the first ordination for many years and a new priest will join the present four (one is Iranian, one is Iraqi, one is Indian and one is French). Despite this, what we try to build for our young people seems to be built on sand. One need only look at the names cancelled from our telephone books to understand the scale of the problem".
This pessimistic note is blown away on the banks of the river Zoyandeh-Rud, in Isfahan. In the nearby suburb of New Giulfa live the descendants of twenty thousand Christians who were deported four centuries ago from Armenian by the Shah Abbas. In Vank, the Armenian monastery finished in 1664, we met the young Bishop Papken Charian who had arrived from the Lebanon only a few months previously. "In Isfahan we have twelve churches and there are another twelve in the rest of the diocese: Shiraz, Ahvaz and Abadan. We try to use them all so as to avoid the danger of the closure of those that are not being used. For the same reason, some of our faithful at times go to Holy Mass celebrated by the Lazarist priest of the Latin church of Isfahan which no longer has a community of its own".
Msgr. Charian accompanies in the ancient Bethlehem chapel whose frescoes are close in style to the Renaissance art of Italy. A few metres on there is the Armenian museum with its important works of art. "During my holidays at Norouz" (editor's note: the Persian New Year), Charian says with pleasure, "seventy thousand Muslim visitors were able to admire the first printing machine to arrive in Iran, brought in 1641 by the Armenian Khachadour Ghesaratzi, in addition to pictures, ancient gospels, manuscripts and objects of Christian art". '"With these earnings", he adds, "we can finance the construction of hopes for young Armenian couples so as to help them build a future for themselves here". Charian says that relations with the Muslims are good. "Going against what is usual the authorities recently appointed a Christian director for the Armenian school. And we very much appreciate this gesture".
However, opinions on official religious policy are different. "The Iranians want to look good on the international scene", says a diplomat in an office in Tehran. "They are happy to repeat that three seats in the Majles (editor's note: the parliament) are reserved for Christians two for the Armenians and one for the Assyrian-Chaldeans, despite their low numbers. But the hardcore of the regime expresses the real intentions of the Ayatollahs. Everything else, including the steps taken by Khatami, are a smokescreen". Hope lies in a different approach to the relationship between the state and religion. A move in this direction took place with the public meeting organised in the mosque of Hosseiniyeh Ershad by famous exponents of the liberal position, amongst whom Mohsen Kadivar, Hashem Aghajari, Mostafa Badkoubehei, Yussuf Eshkevari and Ali Shariati, many of whom had spent spells in prison for their reformist ideas.
At an apparent level the intention of the meeting was to illustrate the work of John Paul II and his defence of human freedom and values, but it was clear that the intention of the organisers was primarily to criticise the Iranian theocratic system. "I am a human being but by chance I am also an Iranian", declared Eshkevari, paraphrasing Rousseau, "and the condition of all human beings is freedom". He then went on to add to applause: "when power clothes itself in religion catastrophe begins. When Popes made kings they dishonoured religion".
This meeting was an opportunity to reflect upon the influence of Christianity on Persian culture. In the audience sat Jamaleddin, a university student. He jotted his thoughts down on a sheet of paper: 'John Paul II wanted a world for all the peoples of the earth and it was for this reason that we, too, loved him. The Iranian people do not want war but dialogue with everyone, independently of their religious creed'.
"In Farsi a Christian terminology does not exist", observes Mattia, "but thanks to its sensitivity, the poetry of the fourteenth century mystic Hafez of Shiraz helps many Iranians to know the God-Love of Christianity. The Islamic revolution reawakened in many people a profound search, people who posed questions to themselves when they saw that war was being waged in the name of God".
In an empty church in Tehran, the devotion of four Muslim girls attracts our attention. "I am ashamed that I met Jesus Christ so late", says Negar, who works as an interpreter. Parastoo says that she comes to church once a week "to find peace". And how does she pray? "I pray to Hazrat Mariam (editor's note: Our Lady), saying: Lady of the Earth, I believe in your God, who is also mine, in your Son, Issa (Jesus), and in your religion. Help me to be a good person and I will always be at your side".
Historical note: Between empires and Ayatollahs
Christianity in Iran developed in a rather special context. First of all, it was born in an Iranic (Manichean and Mazdaic) religious context, outside the Roman-Byzantine influence of the other early Churches. Then in the fifth century it embraced the Nestorian heresy in order to detach itself from the Antioch hierarchy and to avoid the accusation of connivance with the Sassanid Empire, if not persecutions as well (in particular during the reigns of Shapur II and Bahram V in the fourth and fifth centuries).
The fate of Persian Christians underwent a certain improvement during the reign of Cosroe II (590-628) thanks to the conversion of the wife of the sovereign. But the defeat of the Persians at the hands of the Arab conquerors was rapid. In some cities that had been abandoned by their garrisons it was the Nestorian Bishops who negotiated the surrender. The relative tolerance of the Abbasids and Buyids was followed by the rigor of the Seljuks. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the Mongol invasions pushed the Christians to retreat back to the mountainous regions of Lake Urmia.
The adherence of the Safavids to Shiite Islam then drove Persia into conflict with the Sunnite Ottoman Empire. The Christians who were resident in the disputed regions ended up by paying the price for incessant wars between the two powers. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, Shah Abbas I (1587-1629) decided to transform Armenia into a no manís land in order to protect himself against a possible counteroffensive from the Ottomans. Thus he proceeded between 1604 and 1617 to engage in the forced deportation of twenty-thousand Armenians into Persia, in particular to a suburb of Isfahan, the imperial capital, called New Djulfa. This presence soon made an important contribution to the artistic flowering of Persia and to the establishment of relations with the European courts.
During the nineteenth century the Ottoman threat was replaced by the struggle for influence between Russia and Great Britain. In 1828, following the Russo-Persian war, thirty-five thousand Armenians had to leave the country and found refuge in Russia. The same scenario was repeated with the Assyrian-Chaldeans of Iranian Azerbaigian during the First World War. The creation in 1979 of the Islamic Republic led by Ayatollah Khomeini began a new chapter in the history of the Church.
Who are the Gregorian Armenians?
Their name goes back to St. Gregory the Enlightener who converted the Armenian kingdom at the beginning of the fourth century. The Gregorian Armenian Church is a non-Calcedonian apostolic Church. It separated from Byzantium at the time of the great Christological controversies (which were more a question of ecclesial politics than dogma) and the Gregorian Church is very much the Church of the majority in Armenia. It is not united with Rome but it has good relations with Rome. Today, the preferred name that the Gregorians apply to themselves is the Apostolic Armenian Church.
Interview to Fahimeh Mousavi Nezhad, Director of the Institute for Inter-religious dialogue of Teheran
In the conditions in which we live it is difficult to promote an inter-religious dialogue that is different from that of sharing daily life with Muslim Iranians", observed an Iranian prelate at a religious meeting in 1999. "However", he went on, "we do not agree with the specialists of other Churches who come to Iran from abroad with this aim, forgetting that such dialogue cannot ignore the local Church, however small it may be".
This wish was met. The next year the Institute for Inter-religious Dialogue (IIR) was established in Tehran, the result of the initiative of a number of Muslim intellectuals, including Mrs Fahimeh Mousavi Nezhad, who now directs it. We met her at this Institute in Tehran.
What led you to take this step?
First of all: to be coherent with ourselves. All the meetings to promote dialogue that we attended took place abroad and never in Iran. We thus thought that we should do something to promote the increasing need for understanding between the different religions here in Iran as well.
In the world Iran evokes the idea of religious homogeneousness as a Shiite country...
This is a cliché that we want to correct. Throughout history Iran has always been a land of encounter and of co-existence between different faiths. Here there are still important Sunni Muslim communities, but also Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian communities as well.
In your opinion what is the point of engaging in dialogue in Iran with non-Muslim minorities that are so small in size?
The need to engage in dialogue must never disappear. These minorities greatly appreciate the importance of our work. Given that President Khatami has always championed dialogue between civilisations, it cannot be doubted that religious dialogue is an essential part of such dialogue.
So you are a government institution?
No we are an NGO and our funds come in part from donations from certain foreign institutions and in part from the municipality of Tehran.
What are your activities?
The organisation of seminars and conferences on specific subjects that are attended by Muslim and Christian speakers. Amongst the subjects that have been addressed I can mention: 'For a Genuine and Authentic Inter-religious Dialogue'; 'How is the Christian-Muslim Dialogue Carried out?'; and 'The Anglican Approach to Christian-Muslim Dialogue'. At other meetings we have involved Jews and Zoroastrians. In addition, our Institute publishes a six monthly review with contributions from Iranian and foreign authors. The aim of the review is to provide international religious information, reviews of books and information about other institutes dedicated to dialogue. Lastly, we make our library available to researchers and academics and this library has hundreds of volumes on the religions of the world.
In your opinion, what is more important: dialogue between religious leaders or a 'dialogue of life' between believers?
Both are essential. In holding this belief I owe much to the three years that I spent with my husband, Seyyed Ali Abtahi, in the Lebanon.
Have you met with resistance on the part of the Muslim clergy?
Yes, from some conservative exponents of that clergy. There are people who see dialogue as giving way in relation to one's faith. But it is our task to explain that here one is dealing, instead, with listening to others.