Christianity (Part 2)
Khosrow II even had a favorite Christian wife called Shirin, and their love story was immortalized in the Persian romance of Khosrow Va Shirin by Nezami. In the second half of his reign, Khosrow was, however, incited against the Christians. He launched a new war with Byzantium, sacked Jerusalem, killed many people, and carried what was known as the True Cross to Ctesiphon as part of the war booty.
This atrocity led the Roman Church to sponsor Emperor Heraclius’ military campaign against Iran, and the True Cross was eventually returned. It was in Khosrow II’s time that the ﬁrst religious literature, advocating the principles of the Nestorian Church, was composed. During the 5th-6th centuries, the Nestorian Church spread its inﬂuence from Arabia and Mesopotamia to India and Central Asia.
The Catholics of Ctesiphon became a powerful entity, and the extent of his jurisdiction rivaled that of the Byzantine patriarchs. Monasteries were also numerous, scattered in Mesopotamia, Armenia, and northwestern Iran. The Nestorian Church, however, never became the national Iranian Church, although Iranian Christians were never able to gain full ecclesiastical independence from Nestorianism.
Many differences arose between different confessions, particularly Chaldeans, Assyrians, and Armenians. This dissension eventually aided the downfall of Christianity in Iran and helped to bring about its almost total defeat after the Muslim conquest. Ctesiphon was destroyed during the Arab invasion, and the seat of the Catholics was moved in 762 to Baghdad.
After the advent of Islam in Iran, Christians, like Zoroastrians and Jews, had to pay Jizya. Dress codes were assigned to them, and most ended up in segregated neighborhoods. Christians were excluded from employment in government sectors, and most of them turned to ﬁne arts and crafts, especially jewelry making. The coming of the Abbasid caliphs slightly improved the position of the religious minorities, and many Christians contributed to the great translation movement of the 9th century.
Christian viziers were also welcomed at the angel Gabriel Abbasid court. The position of Christians, however, depended on the will and the mood of the Muslim rulers, a situation revealed in the surviving Christian chronicles. The conquest of Jerusalem in 640 resulted in Muslim control of the Holy City and has caused never-ending feuds between Jews, Christians, and Muslims. The conquest also set off the famous Crusades, which lasted, with short intermissions, from 1095 to 1270. During this period, Christians were again viewed by the Muslims as traitors, and 3 their conditions essentially worsened.
The Turkish invasion of Iran was detrimental to the Christians. The Turks were ﬁghting with Christian Byzantium, and suspected Christians in their territories of having afﬁliations with the enemy. However, there still were many Christian communities in all the major cities, notably Baghdad and Nishapur. The Christians in eastern Iran felt relatively secure, having enlisted the support of the Karakitai rulers.
When in 1258 the Mongols conquered Iran, the Christians breathed freely, but only for a short time. Partial to Christianity at the beginning, the Mongol rulers, when they were converted to Islam, tried to prove their zeal by persecuting the religious minorities. The history of Iranian Christians from Timur’s attack to the reign of Shah Abbas I Safavid is almost blank.
In 1603, Christian Armenian chiefs of Julfa in northwestern Iran appealed to Shah Abbas I for protection against the Ottoman Turks. Shah Abbas had his plans concerning the Armenian population of northwestern Iran. So he transferred the entire population of Julfa to the New Julfa of Isfahan, a district on the south bank of the Zayandeh-Rud River allocated to the Armenians.
There they were granted protection and many special privileges. Many Armenians and Georgians were also forcibly removed to central Iran and scattered around the country. They were master craftsmen and artists, and their colonies usually prospered and became wealthy, though they were not given any political power. In the 17th century, the Iranian Nestorian Church was ofﬁcially renounced. A great number of Nestorians reunited with Rome, and were called Chaldeans later, simply Catholics. They chose Orumiyeh (Urmia) in northwestern Iran as the center for their Catholics. The tenets of the Nestorian creed have, however, survived in the Assyrian Church.
The early 17th century is marked by the arrival of Christian missionaries in Iran. Most of these appeared at Shah Abbas’s court and soon made Isfahan a popular center of missionary work. One of the most distinguished of these missionaries was Father de Rhodes of Avignon, known as “The Saint”. Persecutions started again under the late Safavid shahs, particularly during the rule of Shah Sultan Hossein. Julfa was subjected to great suffering at the time of the Afghan invasion as well.
The missionaries were forced to ﬂee, and thousands of Christians were compelled either to migrate or to apostatize. The second stage of foreign missionary work in Iran began in the mid-19th century. Missionary schools and seminaries were established in the main Christian centers of the time Tabriz, Isfahan, Orumiyeh, and Salmas. To these schools and seminaries were soon added hospitals and orphanages, often maintained on governmental allowances.
By the late 19th century, most missions expanded to Tehran and established schools, churches, and hospitals in the capital. In 1811, Henry Martin completed in Shiraz his Persian translation of the New Testament. This was followed by Dr. Glen’s version of the Old Testament. The ﬁrst successful Protestant missionary campaign was held during 1834-1871 when ﬁfty-two American missionaries preached in both eastern and western Iran. By 1910, the American missionaries had founded 62 schools and 4 hospitals for both Christians and Muslims. Missionaries from Russia also managed to convert thousands of former Nestorians to the Russian Orthodox Church.
Christians, along with other religious minorities in Iran, actively participated in the Constitutional movement. Their efforts led to the establishment of a National Consultative Majlis instead of an Islamic Majlis, which had been demanded by the Muslim clergy. The constitution of 1906 put an end to the segregation of religious minorities, but it was not until the Pahlavi period that the Christians were able to be freely integrated into the greater Iranian society.
After the Islamic Revolution, the new Constitution of 1979 guaranteed religious minorities the right to practice their religious rites. Today Iran’s indigenous Christians include Armenians and Assyrians, and there are also a small number of Roman, Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestant Iranians. The Armenians and Assyrians are recognized as official religious minorities. They are entitled to elect their representatives to the Majlis and to follow their religious laws in matters of marriage, divorce, and inheritance. However, Christians are required to observe in the streets and other public gatherings the laws relating to attire, prohibition of alcohol, and segregation by sex. Modern Iranian Christians have churches in many cities, including several large cathedrals. At present, four monasteries exist in Iran: two in Azerbaijan and two in Isfahan.
Nestorianism is considered one of the major Christian heresies. Its bases were laid by Nestorius, born of Persian parents in the late 4th century in Germanicia (today Maras in Turkey). Nestorius studied in Antioch (now in Turkey), probably as the pupil of Theodore, bishop of Mopsuestia. He became a monk at the nearby Monastery of St. Euprepius, and after being ordained a priest, acquired a great reputation for asceticism, orthodoxy, and eloquence. Owing to this reputation, Nestorius was chosen by the Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius II as the Bishop of Constantinople in 428.
By the end of the same year, Nestorius’s Chaplain, Anastasius, delivered a sermon in which he objected to the title Theotokos (“God-Bearer”) as applied to Mary. Many were scandalized, for the term had long been in use. Nestorius, who at the beginning of his career was well-known for suppressing all heresies, suddenly supported Anastasius. He preached that the term Theotokos as applied to Mary compromised Christ’s full humanity. To many people, it seemed that Nestorius was denying the divinity of Christ. The debates led to the church council in Ephesus in 431, where Nestorius’s teaching was formally condemned, and he was exiled. He died in exile in Panopolis in Egypt about 451, but he left as his legacy The Book of Heraclides of Damascus, which became a defense of his teaching and a history of his life.
When Nestorianism was banned in Rome, its followers ﬂed to Iran. There Nestorianism had long existed as the predominant Christian sect and still survives in the Assyrian Church. It is questionable whether Nestorius himself ever taught the heresy named after him. Indeed, he repudiated many of the views ascribed to him, and the attacks of his opponents were based on a misunderstanding.
The fact is that Nestorius repeatedly affirmed the perfect unity of the incarnate Christ. However, his followers (or so it was understood at that time) stressed the independence of the divine and human natures of Christ, and in effect, suggested that they were two persons loosely united. From the orthodox point of View, Nestorianism, therefore, denied the reality of the incarnation and represented Christ as a God-inspired man rather than as God-man.
Since the 5th century, all the principal branches of the Christian church have united in condemning Nestorianism and have afﬁrmed that Christ is a single person, at once wholly human and wholly divine. Even the so-called Nestorian church is not Nestorian in the strict sense, though it venerates Nestorius and refuses to accept the title Theotokos.