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Iranian Religious Groups


Iran's indigenous Christians included an estimated 250,000 Armenians, some 32,000 Assyrians, and a small number of Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant Iranians converted by missionaries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Armenians were predominantly urban and were concentrated in Tehran and Esfahan. Smaller communities exist in Tabriz, Arak, and other cities. A majority of the Assyrians were also urban, although there were still several Assyrian villages in the Lake Urmia region as of the mid-1980s. Armenians and Assyrians were recognized as official religious minorities under the 1906 constitution. Although Armenians and Assyrians encountered individual prejudice, they had not been subjected to persecution. During the twentieth century, Christians in general had participated in the economic and social life of Tehran. The Armenians, especially, achieved a relatively high standard of living and maintained a large number of parochial primary and secondary schools.

The new, republican Constitution of 1979 also recognized the Armenians and Assyrians as official religious minorities. They were entitled to elect their own representatives to the Majlis and were permitted to follow their own religious laws in matters of marriage, divorce, and inheritance. Other Christians had not received any special recognition, and there had been a number of incidents of persecution of Iranian Anglicans. All Christians were required to observe the new laws relating to attire, prohibition of alcohol, and segregation by sex at public gatherings. Christians resented these laws because they have infringed on their traditional religious practices. In addition, the administration of the Armenian schools had been a source of tension between Christians and the government. The Ministry of Education insisted that the principals of such schools be Muslims, that all religion courses be taught in Persian (Farsi), that any Armenian literature classes have government approval, and that all female students observe hejab inside the schools.

The authorities also became particularly vigilant in curbing proselytizing activities by evangelical Christians (not to be confused with officially recognized denominations), whose services were conducted in Persian (Farsi). Government officials closed evangelical churches and arrested converts. Members of evangelical congregations were required to carry membership cards, photocopies of which had to be provided to the authorities. Worshipers were subject to identity checks by authorities posted outside congregation centers. Meetings for evangelical services were restricted by the authorities to Sundays, and church officials were ordered to inform the Ministry of Information and Islamic Guidance before admitting new members to their congregations.

Mistreatment of evangelical Christians continued in the decades following the Revolution. Christian groups reported instances of government harassment of churchgoers in Tehran, in particular of worshipers at the Assembly of God congregation in the capital. Cited instances of harassment included conspicuous monitoring outside Christian premises by Revolutionary Guards to discourage Muslims or converts from entering church premises and demands for presentation of identity papers of worshipers inside.

In the early 2000s, in the later stages of the more moderate Presidency of Mohammad Khatami, Christians had been emigrating from Iran at the rate of 15,000 to 20,000 per year.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 02:45:22 ZULU