The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Christians in Iran

Christianity in Iran has had a long history. It has always been a minority religion, overshadowed by the majority state religions - Zoroastrianism in the past, and Shia Islam today. Christians of Iran have played a significant part in the history of Christian mission.


Main denominations

A number of Christian denominations are represented in Iran. Many members of the larger, older churches belong to ethnic groups with their own distinctive culture and language. The members of the newer, smaller churches are drawn both from the traditionally Christian ethnic minorities and to an increasingly larger degree converts from non-Christian background.

The main Christian churches are:

All statistical information is from church-based sources[1] and reflects the situation in the year 2000 (Christians formed 0.2% of total Iranian population in 2000).

According to the same sources there are between 7,000 and 15,000 members and adherents of the various Protestant and Evangelical churches in Iran, though these numbers are particularly difficult to verify under the current political circumstances.

The International Religious Freedom Report 2004 by the US State Department[2] quotes a somewhat higher total number of 300.000 Christians in Iran, without giving separate numbers for the different denominations.

Iranian government sources are sometimes quoted as giving a total of 110,000 Christians in Iran.


According to the reports of the Acts of the Apostles there were Persians, Parthians and Medes among the very first new Christian converts at Pentecost. Since then, there had been a continuous presence of Christians and churches in Persia/Iran.

During the apostolic age, Christianity began to establish itself throughout the Mediterranean. However, a quite different Christian culture developed on the eastern borders of the Roman Empire and in Persia. Syriac Christianity owed much to Judaism and the Aramaic language. This language was most probably spoken by Jesus, and in various modern forms is still spoken by some Christians in Iran today (see Assyrian Neo-Aramaic and Senaya language). From Persia, missionary activity established the Saint Thomas Christians of India and the Nestorian Stele and Daqin Pagoda in China.

The early Christian community, straddling the Roman-Persian border, were often caught up in the midst of conflict. In 313, when Constantine I proclaimed Christianity to be the state religion of the Roman Empire, the Sassanid rulers of Persia adopted a policy of persecution against Christians, including the double-tax of Shapur II in tho 340s. Christians were feared as a subversive and potentially disloyal minority. In the early 5th century, official persecution increased once more. However, from the reign of Hormizd III (457-459) serious persecutions grew less frequent and the church began to have recognised status. Political pressure within Persia and cultural differences with western Christianity were mostly to blame for the Nestorian schism, in which the Persian church was labelled as heretical. The bishop of the Persian capital, Ctesiphon, acquired the title first of catholicos, and then patriarch completely independent of any western hierarchy.

Yet many old churches remain in Iran from the early days of Christianity. The Church of St. Mary in northwestern Iran for example, is considered by some historians to be the second oldest church after the Church of Bethlehem in Palestine. A Chinese princess, who contributed to its recontruction in 642 AD, has her name engraved on a stone on the church wall. The famous Italian traveller Marco Polo, also described the church in his itinerery during his visit.

The Islamic conquest of Persia, in the 7th century, was originally good for Christians as they were a protected minority. However, from about the 10th century religious tension led to persecution once more. The influence of European Christians once more placed Asian Christians in peril with the onslaught of the Crusades. From the mid 13th century, Mongol rule was a relief to Persian Christians until they adopted Islam. Christianity gradually gave way to Islam, and Persian Christianity shrunk into a small minority. Christians withdrew into ethnic ghettos (mostly Aramaic and Armenian speaking) and disengaged largely from mainstream society.

In 1445, a part of the Aramaic-speaking church (mostly in the Ottoman Empire, but also in Persia) entered into communion with the Roman Catholic Church. This group had a faltering start, but has existed as a separate church sine the consecration of Yohanan Sulaqa as Chaldean Patriarch of Babylon in 1551 by the pope. Most Catholics in Iran today are members of the Chaldean Catholic Church. The Aramaic-speaking community that remains independent is the Assyrian Church of the East. Both of these churches now have smaller representation in Iran than the ethnic Armenian Apostolic Church.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Protestant missionaries began to minister in Persia. A lot of their work was directed towards supporting the extant churches of the country, and improving education and health care. Unlike the older, ethnic churches, they began to engage with the Persian Muslim community also. Their printing presses produced much religious material in various languages. Some converted to Protestantism, and churches using the Persian language still thrive within Iran and beyond.

Current situation

Due to the socio-economic and political pressures in the years following the Iranian Revolution, periods of outright persecution and times of more latent discrimination many Iranian Christians, both as part of the general exodus of Iranians and as response to the specific pressures, have emigrated, mostly to the USA, Canada and Western Europe. In 2000, about 0.2% of Iran's population were Christians. In 1975, Christians numbered about 1.5% of the total population. Statistically, a much larger percentage of non-Muslims have emigrated out of Iran.

Despite its long history in Iran, Christianity has often been seen by Islamic Republic as sympathetic to western ideals. The persecution of the Protestant churches has perhaps been more severe for this very reason. Government intrusion, expropriation of property, forced closure and persecution, particularly in the initial years after the Iranian Revolution, have all been alleged. Most prominent has been the death of Haik Hovsepian Mehr, bishop of the Jamiat-e Rabbani, in 1994. Recently the continuing imprisonment of Hamid Pourmand a lay pastor of the Jamiat-e Rabbani Church has created international concern[3].

The Jamiat-e Rabbani churches and the Anglican Church are both readily accepting converts from Islam and are subsequently growing in membership. About 80% of Jamiat-e Rabbani's members are currently converts from Islam. The majority of other Christian denominations continues to shrink due to emigration.

The Bible in Iranian languages

Armenian and Assyrian Christians use Bibles in their own languages.

There are several contemporary translations of the Bible available in Persian. The first Bible translation of modern times was conducted by Henry Martyn in the 18th century. Current commonly used translations are the Tarjumeh-ye Tafsiri (explained translation) and the older Standard Version.

Portions of the Bible are translated into Azeri (New Testament), Mazanderani (several gospels) and Kurdish (gospels).

See also

Religious Minorities in Iran, Iranian Jews

Further Literature

Last updated: 05-14-2005 07:05:19