Chaldeans, Armenians, Catholics: the small group of Christians in Iran continues to follow their own traditions. While the law protects them, at the same time it imposes severe restrictions. An uncertain future.
The road sign saying ‘Impasse Katolikha’ makes one think that someone was in the mood for jokes at the administration office of Isfahan, a city about 400 kilometers from Tehran, referring to the ‘impasse’ that the Christian churches are facing in Iran.
The number of Christians in that country, in fact, decreases year by year. Before the 1979 Islamic revolution, Christians in Iran were 300 thousand out of a population of 42 million. Today they are 70,000 out of 80 million inhabitants. The majority of them (50,000) belong to the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church, while Catholics are 10,000, that is 0.35% of the total population. Half of them are Chaldeans and a few hundred are Latinos.
The spiritual-religious center of the Catholic community is located in the Armenian district of Djolfa: a quiet place of the old town with splendid Islamic style buildings, mosques, palaces and gardens which remind of an illustrious past. Time seems to have stopped in Djolfa. The residences of the nobility, dating back to the seventeenth century, are surrounded by high walls, which protect them from the glances of the curious. There are two knockers on the ancient wooden doors of these buildings: one for men and another for women. This allowed the women in the house to understand by the knocking at the door, whether the visitor was a woman or a man, and in the second case they covered their face with a veil.
Our Lady of the Rosary, the Catholic Cathedral of Isfahan is in the historic district of Djolfa. The church was built by the Dominicans in 1681 and bears witness to the time when the Catholic Church in Persia was important and pompous. We meet Herach Touroussian, who has worked as a custodian at this church for 15 years. He is a Christian Armenian, however religious affiliation is not important to him: “Faith is what counts”, he says. As a young man he worked in a steel mill in Isfahan and later went to Armenia, a country which at that time was part of the Soviet Union. “In those times, the cathedral was full of treasures. Even the steps leading to the altar were covered with silver.” Herac recalls. Today all those treasures no longer exist. Herach spends his time cultivating a small garden and repairing objects, which, perhaps nobody will ever use. It has been years since the last time the Mass was celebrated in the cathedral, and the building needs to be restored. Unlike the Assyrian-Chaldean and Armenian Churches, the Catholic Church in Iran, does not have legal status; it is not allowed to own properties or land and does not have incomes. In order to move around the obstacle, the Armenian church had to officially declare that they own ‘Our Lady of the Rosary Cathedral’. Last January, Father Jack Youssef, was appointed Apostolic administrator of the small Catholic community of Isfahan, consisting of about two thousand Catholics and five parishes.
The rites of the Catholic Church in Iran are the Chaldean, the Armenian Catholic and the Latin rite. The local Catholic Bishops’ Conference consists of four bishops; two are of Chaldean rite, in the diocese of Tehran and Urmia, respectively Metropolitan Archbishop Ramzi Garmou (also president of the Bishops’ Conference since 2007) and Bishop Thomas Meram; Neshan Karakeheyan is the Patriarchal Administrator of the Armenian-Catholic diocese of Isfahan, with residence in Tehran (about three hundred faithful), while Father Jack Youssef is the Apostolic Administrator of the Latin diocese of Isfahan.
There are 15 parishes with about 15 priests throughout Iran. “As a church, our mission is witnessing despite the difficult context. In Iran in fact, minorities recognized by the Constitution are strictly forbidden to proselytize and the performance of acts of worship is strictly regulated by the regime. However, the strength of the Church in Iran”, underlines Mgr. Garmou, “is not affected by the small number of the faithful, nor by the lack of a legal status”. “This small flock – the prelate states – can be witness of the presence of Jesus, by living its faith in daily life in contact with people of other faiths.” The Catholic Church in Iran is committed to the field of education by managing some schools, kindergartens and nursery schools. Some sisters run hospitality centers for the elderly and for young people.
Qom. In the heart of the Holy City
Qom is a holy city between Tehran and Isfahan with over a million inhabitants. A city where one can live the two faces of Islam, always present in the Shiite world: one mainly political, the other more spiritual. In Qom, Ayatollah Khomeini studied sharia, or Islamic law, jurisprudence, philosophy, and also taught lessons to younger scholars, and gained the status of ayatollah, and in this city the Islamic revolution began.
Today, the city is home to more than 50 000 students, lay and religious people who attend the theological schools or universities, which are more than 50. Several of them are characterized by fundamentalist orientation and focus on the Quran and jurisprudence, but there are also many other theological schools and universities where people actually read the texts of other religions, study history in a scientific manner, study the sciences of modernity, debate about modern philosophies and theologies, mathematical science and social sciences such as sociology and psychology. Among the various schools, it is worth mentioning the University of Religions and Denominations (URD). The university offers graduate programmes in Islamic theology and in various Islamic denominations as well as in Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Some courses on Judaism are taught by Jewish professors.
The URD also has joint programmes and student exchanges with universities from around the world, including Paderborn, Frankfurt, Potsdam, Sorbonne (Paris), the Gregorian University (Rome), Mumbai, etc. Many of the texts of other religions are translated by faculty members. “In order to learn about other religions, we need to study their basic sources and translate them into Persian,” the University Magazine Editor, Professor Mahdi Salehi, says, “so far, we have published some 200 books, including 50 Christian source texts. Religious conflicts are basically caused by the lack of knowledge of other religions”, Professor Salehi continues – “if we really want to live peacefully, we must get to know each other, in fact the guidelines of this university are coexistence and dialogue between religions.”
Some URD academics have just completed a translation into farsi (Persian) of the Catechism of the Catholic Church with a preface by Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran. Professor Ahmad Reza Meftah, who edited the translation, explains: “It was important for all of us, teachers and students, to know more about Christianity, explained by Christians themselves and not by others. Thus, we can eliminate misunderstandings, ideological schemes and foster respect for each other.”
Gevorg, a young Armenian Catholic, is accompanying us on our way back to Teheran. He says: “Life for us, the Christians here in Iran, is difficult. My only wish is to be able to emigrate, not only for economic reasons, but also to have the chance to express my Christian faith freely. Although, we cannot deny that some steps have been undertaken towards changes and openings under President Rouhani’s rule, we are aware that extremist forces are still present. And if a solution to the economic crisis is not found soon, extremists may return to power, and the situation will get worse for us the Christians in this country.”
On board of the old Peugeot traveling fast to Teheran, we look out and see the faces of people and the landscapes that tell so much about the story of this country. The clouds thickening on the horizon forecast stormy weather and a future still uncertain.” (J-L. K.)