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Religious Minorities in the Islamic Republic of Iran

By Prof. Dr. Amid Zanjani
Vice-Chancellor, The University of Tehran
Tehran, Iran

Despite the claims of the Shah’s regime, before the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, religious minorities were alien to their independent identity, culture and ceremonies and were doomed to follow what the policymakers of the Shah had delineated for them. With the victory of the Islamic Revolution and establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran, since the governance method and political institutions were based on jurisprudential bases and since one of the objectives of the Islamic Revolution was restoration of people’s rights and spread of Islamic values, it was expected that the rights of the religious minorities be regulated within the framework of the Covenant of Protection. According to this covenant, the Christians, constituting the largest religious minority, instead of payment of taxes and participation in all national, civil affairs, were expected to be forced to pay tribute which would exempt them from compulsory military service, while their religious, economic and political activities on the other hand would be regulated on the basis of the Covenant of Protection. But the Constituent Assembly opted for another method in 1980, which stemmed from the political percept of Prophet of Islam, that is, a method based on jurisprudential methods, considering religious minorities as citizens and even granting some religious advantages to them.

An Assessment of the Current Status of Christians in Iran

A) The Armenian Churches:
The Armenian community was formed in the mountains of Armenia about two millennia BC. They are known as the first country to have officially recognized Christianity in 301 AD. A migrant Armenian population, who settled in Iran in several stages, are now scattered in Iran. The migration to Iran began since 16th century AD, that is, during the Ottoman wars against Iran. The Armenians migrated to Julfa from where they went to central Iran. From the very beginning the Armenian Church followed the beliefs of the Syriac church and it is one of the denominations of Monophysitism.
The Armenians do not maintain two distinct persons in Jesus Christ and argue that it is a purely divine issue and Christ’s human nature was absorbed in his divine nature. In the fifth century AD, the Armenians replaced their ancestral language, Syriac, with the Armenian language. The slogans of the Armenian Church are in concord with those of the Orthodox Church.
Of course during the missionary period in Iran, a number of Armenians converted to Protestantism and Catholicism who have currently an independent church in Iran. The Armenian Church has accepted the viewpoints of the Nicene Council (either of two church councils which met at Nicaea, the first in A.D. 325 to deal with the Arian heresy, the second in A.D. 787 to consider the question of the veneration of images), Constantinople, and Ephesus, but due to some political, religious reasons, they have not accepted the standpoints of the Chalcedonian Church and rejected the viewpoints of the Nestorians and outcome of Chalcedonian Church in a council convened in Devin in 506 AD. This church encompasses majority of Iranian religious minorities and is a follower of two great churches, that is, the Ichmiadzin in Armenia and Antalya in Lebanon. They have three great historical prelacies in Tehran, Isfahan and Tabriz. They enjoy extensive social, sports, and cultural facilities in the country.
It is pertinent here to mention that according the latest figures the total population of the Islamic Republic of Iran is about 61 million, 99.56 percent of whom are Muslims. In other words, religious minorities constitute only less than 0.5 percent of the total Iranian population. Hence the entire population of minorities in Iran is less than 300,000 people.
The Armenians constitute about 150,000 people of the Iranian religious minorities. As mentioned above, they enjoy extensive social and cultural privileges and facilities. According to the Article 19 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran: “The people of Iran, from any ethnic community or tribe, enjoy equal rights; and color, race, language and other such factors are not a base for any privilege.” According to this article, the Iranian religious minorities, besides the place of worship, are entitled to enjoy other national facilities equal with other fellow citizens.
The Iranian Armenian community currently enjoys the following rights and privileges:
1 – Parliamentary rights: The Armenian community in Iran has two representatives in the Parliament (Islamic Consultative Assembly).
2 – Churches: Out of about 250 Iranian churches, 200 belong to the Armenian community of Iran with the strength of 120,000 people in Tehran who have 50 churches in Tehran alone.
3 – Media: The Armenians in Iran since old times have been having magazines, newspapers, weeklies, dailies, monthlies, and quarterlies at national level. The Alik magazine is 67-year old, which has its readers not only in Iran, but also in forty other countries. Thus far the Armenian community in Iran has registered 102 publications, which are published by various Armenian associations.
4 – Other Armenian facilities include the following: 50 cultural, sports and charity associations. For instance, the Ararat Sports Club in Tehran is among the greatest sports complexes of the country, which exclusively belongs to the Armenian community. The latest final soccer championship of the Armenian community was inaugurated in Tehran by President Mohammad Khatami.
There are 50 special Armenian schools exclusively for the Armenian community in which the Muslim students are not admitted. On the contrary all Iranian schools are open to all religious minorities.
The Armenian community has a number of sanitariums, exclusive cemeteries, press, and a number of national, cultural monuments. Among them mention may be made of the Qarah Church, Vank Church, and Armenian museums. Established in 1606 AD, the Vank Church has an Iranian traditional architecture and since its establishment has accommodated 32 succeeding Armenian prelates.

B) The Assyrian Churches:
The Assyrians are a subsection of the Semitic race whose descendents came to the southern Arabian Peninsula from Iraq and Mesopotamia few millennia BC. After embracing Christianity, the Assyrians established a religious denomination, which was purely nationalistic and announced it as an independent denomination. From doctrinal point of view the Eastern Assyrian Church or the Pars Church was affiliated to the Orthodox Church. It is a follower of the Nestorius, the Bishop of Constantinople (428-431 AD). The followers of Nasturtiums believe that Jesus Christ has both human and divine natures or terrestrial and celestial natures; for the two- or three-month-old Jesus could be called God. Despite its Orthodox history, the Nestorian community itself has Catholic and Protestant denominations. The Nestorians are about 1,200,000 million people scattered in Iraq, Iran and the United States. Their privileges and facilities in Iran include the following:
1 - Parliamentary rights: One representative in the Parliament of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
2 – Churches: There are 59 Assyrian or East Assyrian churches in Orumiyeh (East Azerbaijan) alone; while there are five churches in Tehran. Thus, the 30,000 Assyrians in Iran have 65 churches, six of which belong to the Sasanid era.
3 – Educational, sports and cultural facilities: Besides being entitled to enroll in national schools – just like any other Iranian citizen – the Assyrians have their own special schools as well. The most prestigious Assyrian schools are Behnam Boys School and Mary Girls School. The Assyrians have 27 publications, 20 cultural-social centers, 12 women and engineering committees… The world leader of Assyrians stays for one or two months in Iran every year.

C) The Russian and Greek Orthodox churches:
The Russian and Greek Orthodox churches are other two churches that were established in Iran in the past because of the presence of Russian and Greek nationals in Iran and still continue functioning. The Russian Saint Nicolas Church is another church with a sitting bishop from Russia. He is the spiritual leader of several thousand Russians working and living in Iran. He is also the spiritual leader of the Russians working and living in the Persian Gulf region.

D) The Catholic Church in Iran:
Acquaintance with the Catholic Church in Iran dates back to the 16th century when the Nestorians were divided into two sects: One, the Caledonians whose bishop was appointed (1555 AD) by the Pope Julius III (Italian ecclesiastic); and the other, the Nestorians who remained loyal to the Eastern Assyrian Church. The Catholic community has a 13-member priestly council, encompassing the following three communities:

1 – Armenian Catholic Community
The history of this church goes back to four centuries ago, that is, the period of the Safavid dynasty, when the Catholic religious missionaries launched their propagation and missionary activities in Iran. Some 12,000 Armenians follow this church. The Armenian Catholic community has eight churches, four physical educational, sports complexes, six educational institutes and one cemetery.

2 - The Caledonian Assyrian Catholic Community
Although the followers of this church observe all Catholic rites and rituals, they perform their rites and rituals in Assyrian language. This church has eight churches and 13,000 followers in Iran.

3 – Latin Catholic Community
This church was established in 1630 AD by the foreigners who had come to Iran for service. Religious ceremonies are regularly held in this church on Sundays. The nationals of France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Poland participate in its ceremonies and rituals. According to the figures released by the Catholic Prelacy in 1991, the followers of this church are about 2,500, who have nine churches.

The Protestant Church
With the advent of British and American missionaries to Iran since 19th century, they established this denomination in Iran. The branches of this denomination are:

1 – Iran’s Presbyterian Church
The beliefs of the followers of this church are based on the teachings of Calvin. They maintain that Jesus Christ was given birth by Virgin Mary, then was crucified and buried by his enemies, but rose from amongst the dead on the third day of crucifying, ascended to the heavens on the fortieth day and will return one day. They have faith in the Resurrection, Day of Judgment and the Holy Spirit.
The Presbyterian churches in Iran have three distinct languages, each of which having their own church organizations. They are:
a)The Assyrian Presbyterian Church
b)The Armenian Presbyterian Church
c)The Persian Presbyterian Church
The above-mentioned three communities appoint six representatives each to constitute an 18-member council that is the highest body of the Presbyterian Church in Iran. There are about 5,000 followers of this church who have 14 churches in Iran.

The Anglican Church of Iran
The Anglican Church, which launched its activities in Iran in nineteenth century, believes in the true unique God, the father, son and the Holy Spirit, the birth of Jesus Christ from Virgin Mary, Crucifying of Jesus Christ and his rise from amongst the dead and his Ascent to the heavens and his return, and baptizing of the children. There are about 80 followers of this church in Iran, who have three churches in Isfahan, Tehran and Shiraz.

The Pentecost Church
The Pentecost Church was established in Iran in 1895 and from the very beginning was affiliated to the General Council of US Pentecost Church. The Pentecost Church believes in the divine speech and considers speech as a sign of baptism of the Holy Spirit. The church allows its followers to utter their personal spiritual experiences and blessings.
The followers of this church have three churches in Tehran and hold sessions in their houses as well. There are 2,000 followers of this church who have 10 bishops and 20 church rectors.

The Seventh Day Adventist Church
The Seventh Day Adventist Church was established in 1911 in Iran. It is a Protestant denomination whose followers rest on the Seventh Day. They have close cooperation with the Presbyterian Church in Iran. The followers of this church believe in the Holy Book, Ten Commandments, and early return of Jesus Christ. They prepare themselves for this great return. This preparation includes keeping aloof from wrong, preservation of soul and body, refraining from eating unclean meat, alcoholic beverages, smoking and avoidance from unhealthy remarks.
The Adventist Church in Iran has a religious council, six active and non-active churches and about 70,000 followers.

Rights and Freedoms
According to the principles of the Islamic Rights, the Islamic government guarantees the freedom of worship and religious rites and rituals, security of temples and places of worship and holy sites, dignity of religious figures, freedom of choosing one’s house, juridical independence, freedom of economic activities, and freedom in social affairs.
The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran is the practical embodiment of theoretical and canonical principles of Islam regarding the rights of the religious minorities. The religious minorities are not considered aliens in the country, rather they are among official communities of the country and according to Article 19 of the Constitution, “The Iranian people from any ethic community or tribe enjoy equal rights; and color, race, language and other such factors are not a base for any privilege.” As mentioned above, the minorities of Iran are basically the Armenians, Assyrians, and other Persian-speaking and non-Persian-speaking ethic communities and tribes who are all known as Iranian citizens and all enjoy equal rights. Besides the above-mentioned article, there are five other articles in the Constitution on the rights of Iranian minorities:
1 – Article 13: The Zoroastrian, Jewish and Christian Iranians are recognized as the only religious minorities who are free to perform their religious ceremonies within the framework of law and with regard to private rights; they are free to practice their religious teachings according to their own religions.
What is understood from the above article is:
a)The Zoroastrian, Jews and Christians are Iranian citizens and nationals and are not considered as aliens.
b)The legal framework applied to all Iranian citizens is also applied to them.
c)They are free to practice their own ceremonies in accordance to their culture and customs. This freedom applies to the performance of their rituals, marriage, ethnic, tribal cultural customs, and clothes as well as observance of their norms and values.
d)They enjoy their private rights related to religious, cultural features.
e)They are free to teach their religious teachings to the followers and their children and establish their own educational institutes.
2 – Article 14: According to the Quranic verse: “God forbids you not, with regard to those who fight you not for (your) Faith nor drive you out of your homes, from dealing kindly and justly with them: For God loveth those who are just,” [60: 8] the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Muslims are duty-bound to treat the non-Muslims on the basis of justice, equity and nicety and observe their rights. This right applies to those who do not hatch plots against Islam and the Islamic Republic.
According to the abovementioned article two institutions, that is, society and government are duty-bound to observe the rights of the religious minorities on the basis of good ethics and justice and violation of this will be tantamount to breach of the Constitution.
Article 15: Local, ethnic languages are allowed to be used in the press and public media and the teaching of their literature is allowed in the schools on the side of the Persian language.
Before the victory of the Islamic Revolution, the Christians were not allowed to use their religious, ethnic language and literature, but after the victory of the Islamic Revolution, they could use their own language in their associations as well as religious, cultural gatherings.
Article 26: “The recognized political parties, associations, communities, guilds, Islamic associations and religious minorities are free provided that they do not violate the principles of independence, freedom, national unity, Islamic criteria and Islamic Republic. No boy can be banned from attending these gatherings or forced to participate in any one of them.”

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