Catholics in Iran: A community at risk of extinction?

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Catholics in Iran: A community at risk of extinction?
An interview with Camille Eid – journalist, author and observer of middle East Churches
Q) Iran is over 99% Muslim and Islam is the state religion. Camille, the Church’s roots in Iran are very old going back to the 2nd century. Is Christianity the oldest religion in Iran?

A)No, we have two older communities older than Christianity. First we have the Zoroastrian community which goes back centuries before the arrival of Christianity and Islam. Second, we have the Jewish community. The Zoroastrian community consists of about 20,000 people and the Jewish between 20,000 and 35,000. These two communities are older than the Christian community.

Q) Today, Iran is over 99% Muslim. How does Islam permeate daily life?

A)If you are on the streets of Tehran, or any part of the country, you will notice the portrait of the martyrs, the Ayatollah, the late Khomeini, the current Ayatollah Khamenei. If you use a phone on public telephone booth you will hear the voice of Imam Hussein telling you what to do.

Q) So if you pick up a phone immediately you will hear a (recorded) voice of the Imam?

A) Right, and in the schools, the Disciplines are permitted but through the perspective based on the Koran and Hadith and the other Islamic sciences.

Q) In fact, if I understand correctly, the picture of the Ayatollah is even on the cover of the catechism books?

Q) Right and maybe it is a way to show that the Christians are under the protection of the regime and are considered dhimmis (protected people) in the Islamic Sharia. It is a way to say that you [Christians] are under our [Islamic] regime. Then you have the religious police…

Q) I was going to ask you about the modesty patrols that make sure that women are properly garbed

A) Right. Sometimes they are hard liners and sometimes not depending on the regime. Under Khatami, for instance, they were a little bit liberal so girls could show a little bit of their heads. Under Ahmadinejad it is stricter.

Q) It is very strict now and back to the complete covering?

A) Yes and it should only be the face showing. Sometimes you have women who cover their hands and faces.

Q) Christians number about 100,000 in a population of 71 million. How are Christians viewed in Iran?

A) Christians are viewed as ethnic minorities because the Christians are predominantly Armenians, and Syro-Chaldeans. We have 80,000 Orthodox Armenians who are also called Gregorian or Apostolic Armenian, 5,000 Catholic Armenians, and around 20,000 Assyro-Chaldeans plus other communities such as Latin, Protestants churches which, all together make up between 100,000 to 110,000. So they are seen as ethnic minorities and as such, they are not allowed to celebrate their Rites in Farsi, the official language of Iran. So they can’t celebrate the Holy Mass in Farsi but in Armenian or Chaldean.

Q) To distinguish them as foreign?

A) Not only that but to prevent them from being attractive and understood by the local Iranians.

Q) To prevent the Iranians from being attracted to the faith?

A)Right and to prevent them [Iranians] from understanding what they [Christians] are saying. There was a unique case; I was in Tehran a few days after the death of Pope John Paul II and the priest read the Scriptures in Farsi in the presence of the authorities. So this was an exceptional case.

Q) And yet, at the same time parliament reserves 3 seats for Christians. So, on the face of it, Christians have a voice within the parliamentary structure?

A) In fact, the Islamic Republic has kept the Constitution of 1906 which reserves 5 seats for minorities – 3 for Christians, 1 for Zoroastrians and the other for the Jews. You also notice that the Bahل’i, for instance, which is the largest non-Muslim has no seat because they are considered heretics and not a religious community and therefore non-persons.

Q) So there is division between the Islamic communities?

A) If you can consider Bahل’i Islamic, I don’t know, because they are also monotheistic but Islam does not consider any other monotheistic faith after Mohamed and they [Bahل’i] are considered heretics and that is all.

Q) Are the rights of Christians guaranteed by the Constitution?

A) No, it doesn’t mean that they are guaranteed in the Constitution. Article 13 mentions that all Iranians are equal by race, by language but religion is not mentioned. In article 14; if you allow me to read it: “All these non-Muslim communities should abstain from taking part in conspiracies against Islam and the Islamic republic of Iran”. And the last one, article 19, states: “All Iranians whatever ethnic group they belong to enjoy the same rights and that colour, race, or language does not offer any privilege”. Here too there is no reference to religion.

Q) But it does say, within article 13 of the Constitution that Christians are allowed to express their rights and engage in their faith?

A) Unless they do not take part in conspiracies against the Republic of Iran. What does it mean? Does it mean contesting the regime? The problem of Iran is that it is a theocratic regime. So the opposition to the regime as a political action could be interpreted as an action against the Islamic republic, as it happened a few weeks ago. Within the Islamic community, you have the liberals and the conservatives. By contesting Ayatollah Khamenei are you contesting the political face of the regime or the religious? When you have the same face of the political and religious regime; an attack on the political face is considered an attack on the religious facet of the theocratic regime.

Q) What kind of other restrictions do Christians face in their daily life?

A) Well, in public administrations it is hard for Christians to find jobs. Even the directors of Christian schools are Muslims with one exception – in Isfahan about 2 or 4 years ago when the government nominated an Armenian for the Armenian school. But in most cases the directors of Christian schools are Muslims – to the few Christian schools that they [Christians] got back after confiscation in 1979 and 1980. Another example is in the army; some years ago they discovered that an officer, a Colonel Hamid Pourmand, converted to Christianity. He was prosecuted and was court marshaled but because of international pressure he was able to leave Iran. Over all it is very difficult for Christians to be in high government positions in Iran.

Q) What is the life for a Muslim convert?

A) One cannot declare one’s new faith inside Iran. It is only possible if one is able to go abroad. I know two Iranian families here in Italy who are converts. One of the families crossed the border between Iran and Turkey in winter. It was difficult and they were able to secure asylum. Inside Iran they cannot express or show their faith because they will face death. It is not easy.

Q) I want to touch on the question of the flight of the Christians from Iran after the 1979 Islamic revolution. About half of the Christian population left the country and there is, as far as I can read and understand about 10,000 families that leave Iran every year. What does this mean for the Christian community in Iran?

A) Let me say that the political pressure is upon both Non-Muslims and Muslims, but Christians are twice under pressure because you have the political facet of the regime that is questioned by the majority of the Iranian people and on top of that you have the religious pressure for the Non-Muslims, because they feel that their freedom is curtailed. That is why there is this massive flight and in fact there is a real risk of the disappearance, of an extinction of Christianity in Iran.

This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for “Where God Weeps,” a weekly television and radio show produced by Catholic Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.

More information under www.WhereGodWeeps.org

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