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The Nestorian Christians
 
 According to Christian records this sect entered Iran from the west towards the end of the first Century AD and after facing long periods of persecution and harassment its members gradually spread to other parts of Iran, and particularly to western Iran including Hadyābineh (Adyāben), the Ibn Omar Island, and Mesopotamia, during the periods in which religious freedom was recognized in the country. Moreover, when the council of Christians was held in Ctesiphon, the Sasanid King Yazdgerd I, declared Christianity as one of the lawful religions of Iran and recognized the archbishop of Ctesiphon as the head of the Christian community of Iran. In the 7th Century AD, the Assyrian Church of Iran dropped the application of the term “Theotokos” (meaning: “Mother of God”) for Mary, the Virgin Mother of Jesus (‘a), as well as a belief in the dual nature (divine and human) of Jesus, following which it came to be known as the Eastern Syriac Church or the Nestorian Church. From this time onwards until the advent of Islam in Iran and despite the presence of other Christian communities like the Ya’qubi (Jacobite) sect/Church that believed in the theory of monophysitism, Nestorian Christianity spread in Iran and not only had many followers in the western regions of the country but also had followers in the central region, the coastal areas of the Caspian Sea, Khorāsān, Herāt, and in many cities of Central Asia. According to Tha’ālebi, when Yazdgerd III was killed in Marv it was the bishop of that region who had found his body and had it buried.
The western regions of Iran, Hireh, Mesopotamia, and Jazireh (or Yazirah) where among the first Iranian territories that were conquered by the Muslim troops. The inhabitants of these regions where mostly of Christian faith who signed peace treaties with the Muslims and agreed to pay the jizyah and other taxes ad in this way became dhimmi non-Muslims and came under the protection of the Islamic government while their lives, properties, and churches were duly respected. During the period of the “Kholafā-ye Rāshedin” (the first four caliphs) and consequently during the reign of the Ummayids these Christians were free to administer the affairs of their own community and to practice their religious rites and ceremonies as long as they paid the jizyah and other taxes and did not create any disturbance in the general public order of society. In the years that followed, not only did the Muslims protect the Christian educational centers of Nasibayn, Jondi Shāpur and Marv, but they also encouraged people to go for training to these centers in order to become accountants, medical doctors, state secretaries, and teachers. During these periods and even for many years that followed the Nasturi Christian community was considered to be an independent community, the internal affairs of which were administered by the archbishop of the community in accordance with their own religious and personal laws. The archbishop was selected by the members of the community and his selection was sent for approval to the caliph.
Following the coming into power of the Abbasids and particularly during the reign of Ma’mun, the Iranian Christians penetrated into the caliphate more than ever before. The seat of the archbishop was transferred from Ctesiphon and gained closer association with the caliphate. It was during the same time that “Jerjis bin Bakhtishu’”, who was a medical doctor in the Jondi Shāpur University, was summoned to Baghdad and was appointed as the personal physician of the Abbasid caliph; Mansoor, a position that remained in his household for six consecutive generations. Moreover, in the Bayt al-Hekmah (lit.: “The Academy of Knowledge”) of Baghdad that was established during the reign of Ma’mun in the year 218 Ah/833 AD and whose administrative executive was a Christian called Honayn bin Eshāq, many Christians were engaged in translating works of philosophy, medicine, science, and culture from the Greek language into Arabic.
Meanwhile, the propagation activities of the Nestorian church that had been launched since the 5th Century AD came to gain extensive momentum and missionaries came to be sent eastwards among the Turk, Tātār, and Mongol migrants as well as the quasi migrant tribes and as far as India, China, and Tibet. As a result of these missionary activities, six new episcopal centers were established in Rey, Marv, Samarqand, Kashgar, Tangut, and Chang’an. While the propagation activities in Tibet were administered by the patriarch of Tangut, the patriarch of Chang’an was in charge of the same in China. These activities had also resulted in the extensive inclination of the Mongol tribes towards Christianity. Although the Abbasid caliph, Mansur, had issued a decree imposing certain limitations on the clothing, commutation, education, etc. of the dhimmi non-Muslims, these limitations that were enforced at times during the reigns of the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties were generally temporary and were confined to large cities. Moreover, repeated issuances of such decrees prove that they were not enforced continually.
The Buyid rulers, too, had adopted a compromising policy towards the Christians and the other religious minorities. Emād al-Doleh had appointed a number of Christians in his administration and Azad al-Doleh had appointed a Christian called Nasr bin Hārun as his minister while he was at the peak of power.
Although the Seljuqs, owing to their fanatic Sunni beliefs, had caused some problems for the Christians during their reign in Iran, because of their confrontations with the Byzantine Empire and because of the involvement of such Iranian elite as Khwājeh Nezām al-Molk in the political and administrative affairs of the country, the Christians did not face any significant difficulties.
The Mongol invasion of Iran and their domination over the western Iranian territories raised a lot of hope among the Christian community of Iran since many Mongolian tribes had in the past converted into Christianity as a result of the missionary activities of the Nestorian Christians while owing to inter tribal marriages, Christianity had also penetrated into Genghis Khan’s family and tribe. Both Hulagu’s mother (Sarquqtini Beigi) and wife (Doquz Khātun) were Christian. Moreover even Jermāghun, the commander of the Mongol army in Iran, had Christian inclinations and in Hulāgu’s military expeditions to Iraq most of the forces were recruited from among the Christians. All these factors had made the Iranian Christians as well as the Christians of the West hope for the establishment of a Christian government in Iran in replacement of the existing Islamic rule.
When Baghdad was conquered by Hulāgu’s forces the Christians gathered in the great church of that city and, thus, managed to retain their houses and escape massacre. Following Hulāgu’s rule over Baghdad, Mākikhā, the batrerik (head priest) of the Nestorians became a dignitary in the city and on Hulagu’s command the Minor Davātdār’s palace that was built on the bank of River Tigris was put at his disposal. During the reigns of the Ilkhanid Mongols viz. Abāqā, Tagudār, Giyok, and Arghun, the Iranian Christians enjoyed greater freedom as well as many more privileges as compared to the Muslims. As per historical records, Arghun had issued an instruction prohibiting Muslims from being appointed to administrative jobs. Furthermore, the close association between the Mongols and the Roman Catholic Church had resulted in the dispatching of a large number of missionaries to the Iranian Christian communities living in Tabriz, Marāgheh, Dehkhwārqān, Sivās, and Soltāniyeh regions. However, these missionaries did not gain much success and with the outbreak of Tamerlane’s invasions and the subsequent plague that followed these invasions in the above mentioned regions they had to disperse to other places.
However, when Ghazan Khan embraced Islam the situation altered all of a sudden and the Iranian Christians lost their powerful supporters. Ghazan Khan commanded his men to destroy all the non-Muslim places of worship including Buddhist temples, Zoroastrian fire temples, Christian churches, and Jewish synagogues. Subsequently, the Jews and the Christians were ordered to wear distinct clothes or a zonnār (a girdle distinguishing the Christians or Jews from the Muslims). During the ensuing rebellions Bishop Yahbā Lāheh was injured and imprisoned and the churches of Marāgheh and Tabriz were plundered and destroyed.
In the following years the Arab and Kurdish Muslims took advantage of the situation and avenged the undue oppression that they had faced earlier at the hands of the Christians. During these retaliations a group of Nestorian Christians were killed and many of them were held captive. When Teimur (Tamerlane) invaded and conquered Iran, both, the Iranian Muslims and Christians were inflicted to the same degree in his devastating attacks. As a result of Tamerlane’s attacks the Nestorian church of Iran collapsed and the disintegrated Christian community took refuge in the mountainous regions of west and southwest Iran to the extent that according to the author of the book, the “Jahāngoshāye Khāqān” (lit.: “The World Conquering Emperor”) during the uprising of the Safavid king, Shah Esmā’il, groups of the Iranian Christians lived in Āzarbāyjān, Arān, and Moghān.
During the period of the Safavid rule disagreements erupted among two groups of the Nestorian Christians of Iran over the selection of the batrerik (the head priest) in 958 AH/1551 AD. Subsequently, since both these two groups wished to win the support f the Pope in Rome both of them declared their allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church and thereafter each group established its own United Chaldean Church in Mosul and Orumiyeh. The remaining Nestorian Christians who continued to preserve their independence established their own episcopal center in Orumiyeh. However, in the course of time the relations of the first two groups were severed with Rome and following a series of developments in the 19th Century the episcopal center of the United Chaldean Church was established in Salmās while the episcopal center of the Independent Assyrian church came to be stationed in Orumiyeh.
During the reign of the Qajar Dynasty the Nestorian Christians were settled in the Salmās region near the Turkish border as well as in the plains of Orumiyeh. Most of these Christians were agriculturists and like the Muslims had to pay heavy taxes to the government and, thus, lived under very stringent economic conditions. The enforcement of some unjust laws on them such as the need to wear a particular type of distinct clothing, the non-acceptance of their testimony in the courts of law, a lack of permission for them to ride on horses, and the inheritance of a deceased Christian to be transferred to that member of the family who had converted to Islam became a heavy burden on this community and prompted groups of them to migrate to Russia to save themselves from the existing situation.
The first Christian missionaries that began their activities from 1830s onwards in the various regions of Āzarbāyjān, and Tabriz and Orumiyeh in particular, were mainly Roman Catholics as well as American and British Protestants and more often than not there was rivalry and conflict between these two groups. The Catholics aimed at inducing conversions and adding to their number of followers while the Protestants were concerned with spreading their teaching among the Christians. The Protestants had established schools in Orumiyeh and the adjoining areas and were engaged in teaching and training students. As a result of the activities of the Protestant Christians such as the establishment of cultural centers, hospitals, and printing presses as well as the publication of books and periodicals, the Iranian Assyrian community entered a new phase of its social life. While the Catholics referred to the Christians who had joined the Roman Church as the Chaldeans, the Protestants called the Christians who had accepted Protestantism as the Assyrian Christians. The term “Assyrian” came to be welcomed and accepted by the Nestorian Christians and it distinguished them the other Christian sects of Iran during the 19th and the 20th Centuries. According to the current Iranian Constitutional Law the Iranian Assyrians have their own representative in the Islamic Consultative Assembly (the Majles).
 
* source: Lajevardi , Fatemeh " Iran Entry " The Great Islamic Encyclopedia . Ed. Kazem Musavi Bojnourdi.Tehran: The Center of Great Islamic Encyclopaedia , 1989-, V.10 , pp.598- 600
 
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