Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

The Persian Church

by Francis Sampson


This article is about the history Christianity in Iran where there was once a flourishing Persian Church. Both under the Sassanian monarchs of Iran and under the Caliphs of Bagdad, this Church could bear comparison with the Church of the Western World for extent, numbers, learning, and missionary zeal.

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The Ecclesiastical Review



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American Ecclesiastical Review for The Catholic University of America, June 1942

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Among the countries which the present war has brought to the attention of the world is Persia, a land with a historic past, but for centuries rarely heard of. Its very name has been changed to Iran, a name which means much to the historian and the ethnologist, but conveys little to the man in the street.

Few persons would connect Persia, or Iran, with Christian history, For centuries Persia has been a Moslem land, though of the "Shiite" sect, rather than "Sunnite " professed by most followers of the Prophet. In earlier ages it was the home of the faith of Zoroaster, perhaps the noblest of non-revealed religions, now preserved only by a small but influential group of Parsecs in India and by a still smaller number of "Guebers" in Iran itself. Christians number but a few thousands, almost all of non-Iranian stock.

Yet there was once a flourishing Persian Church, whose history forms a glorious page in the annals of Christianity. Both under the Sassanian monarchs of Iran and under the Caliphs of Bagdad, this Church could bear comparison with the Church of the Western World for extent, numbers, learning, and missionary zeal. It planted the banner of the Cross in lands as remote as Tartary and China to the east and India to the south. Now that this forgotten land is once more in the lime-light, it might be well to bring to light something about this forgotten Church.

Although the names of Cyrus and his successors are familiar to anyone with a knowledge of history, few know anything about the Sassanian Persian monarchs, who for centuries disputed with Rome the rule of the known world. Their empire stretched from Syria to. Central Asia; for a time its banners floated over the Holy City and waved defiance at the walls of Imperial Constantinople itself.

The origin of Christianity in the regions of the East is a matter of conjecture. The Faith was doubtless preached right from the first in the earlier Parthian Empire, for we read in the Acts of the Apostles that among the converts on the first Whitsunday were "Parthians and Medes and Elamites and dwellers in Mesopotamia." Since the first Christians went everywhere preaching the Gospel, it would be strange if these converts did not attempt the evangelization of their home lands. It is probable that such preaching was carried out largely among the Jews, for the Jewish community in Babylonia was so numerous and influential as to be considered superior even to that of Palestine itself. That this missionary activity was not very successful may be gathered from the incident of a Palestinian Jewish convert who was sent to Babylonia so as to keep him out of harm's way.

Later Nestorian writers, anxious to assert the Apostolic origin of their Church, ascribed the preaching of Christianity variously to the Magi, to St. Thomas the Apostle, and to a certain Addai of Edessa, whom they make one of the seventy-two disciples of Our Lord. However much truth these claims may contain, they are certainly mixed up with a great deal of fiction.

It is about the end of the 3rd Century that the real history of the Persian Church begins. The chief figure at that time was a certain Pappa, bishop of the royal cities of Seleucia-Ctesiphon. The Church was in a state of considerable disorganization at this time; so Pappa determined to federate it under the rule of his own see, acting as vicar for the "Western Fathers", that is the Syrian bishops. This project met with violent opposition; and neither the official nor the private life of the elderly prelate was spared by his opponents. At a Synod which was held, they managed to gain a majority; Pappa was deposed and another chosen in his stead. He appealed to the "Western Fathers", who annulled the whole proceedings and re-instated him in his office, while the rebels were for the most part excommunicated.

This Synod was not lacking in moments of excitement. During the course of the debate, Pappa, angered and fore-seeing defeat, struck the Book of the Gospels and cried out, "Speak, Gospel, speak. Thou art set as a judge in the midst—and Thou dost not cry vengeance for justice?" Overcome by excitement, he took a stroke, which his enemies attributed to Divine justice.

Such was the first great inner crisis of the Persian Church; unfortunately, by no means the last. It had need of all the unity and strength at its command, for soon it was to pass through one of the most terrible trials that any Church has ever had to undergo—the forty years' persecution of Sapor II. The motives of this persecution were, as has so often been the case, more political than religious. While the Sassanian monarchs boasted of their devotion to the faith of Zoroaster, it does not appear that there had been any general persecution of the adherents of other faiths previous to this time. Eusebius says that Constantine the Great wrote to the Persian monarch congratulating him upon his benevolence towards the Christians.

With the outbreak of the chronic war between Persia and Rome there came a change. During previous conflicts Rome was still pagan, and Persian Christians were in no way affected. Now under Constantine a different situation prevailed. The Emperor was the patron of Christianity, the "equal of the Apostles", as the subservient Byzantines hailed him. He gave to the struggle the character of a Holy War.

It is not to be wondered at that Sapor was suspicious of the loyalty of the large body of Christians in his own empire, most of whom were after all not of Iranian stock. To make matters worse, it would appear that his suspicions were not entirely without foundation. Afraat, "the Persian Sage", the chief Christian writer of the time, predicted a Roman victory. He describes the Romans as the "people of God", while Sapor is called "a wicked and proud man, puffed up with vanity". "Doubt not," he says, "that the hero who has the name Jesus comes with His power, and His armor upholds all the army of the Empire". But Afraat wisely does not leave himself out on a limb, for he says that he is no prophet, and "if these (the Persian) troops are successful, know that it is a punishment inflicted by God".

Naturally the Christians did not proclaim such sentiments from the house-tops. Probably they did not all share them. Thus one martyr said to the king just before his execution, "May your clemency order the public crier to mount the wall and make the rounds of it, rolling the drum, and publish this proclamation, 'Gushtahazad is to be put to death, not for having divulged the secrets of the kingdom or for having committed some other crime punished by the laws; he is put to death because he is a Christian".

The vast preparations which Sapor was making for an "all out" war on Rome cost money. Accordingly the king ordered the patriarch, Simon, to raise a double tax on the Christians. Simon refused this "request", alleging the poverty of his flock, and protesting that it was his duty as bishop, not to squeeze money from them, but to govern them with kindness. According to the "Passion of Simon", when the king received this response, he flew into a violent rage, crying, "Simon wishes to excite his disciples and his people to rebellion against my empire. He wishes to make of them the slaves of Caesar, their co-religionist. That is why he does not obey my orders."

Thus began the long persecution, lasting from 339 to 379, and surpassed by none of the great Roman persecutions for ferocity and intensity. In broad outline it followed the Roman ones, but differed in details, due to the different character of the two monarchies. The Roman genius was strongly legal, not to say legalistic. The power of the Emperor might be unlimited and his actions tyrannical, but they were clothed in the garb of legality. The Persian King of Kings was an Oriental autocrat, whose royal will had no need of being tied up with any red tape or squared with any code. But as one writer says, "If on the one hand it was perilous for the Christians to be delivered to the arbitrary will and good pleasure of a despot, on the other hand the absence of a legal promulgation of the royal will was perhaps what saved them from a definite ruin. In countries where no other will is known but the caprice of the master, the submission shown him when he is present is equaled only by the little care taken of his orders when he is not there to oversee their execution."

The method of procedure varied considerably. Sometimes, alas, the denunciations to the authorities were made by Christians, so-called, in order to satisfy private grudges. In other cases the Jews were the informers, but usually it was the Persian officials, clerical and lay, who instigated the proceedings. Naturally the Zoroastrian priests, or mages, distinguished themselves by their zeal; and the mobeds, who corresponded roughly to bishops, acted with a sort of inquisitorial authority. The accused were often kept in prison for months and even years, and frequently had to follow the royal court in its progress from one place to another. During their imprisonment attempts were made to persuade them to abandon Christ for Zoroaster. As a sample of the arguments on such occasions, we might quote from the Passion of Simon the Patriarch. The king promised him life if he would adore the sun. Simon answered, "I would not adore you, and yet you are more excellent than the sun, because you are endowed with intelligence.—There is but one God—Jesus Christ, dead upon the Cross." To this the king rejoined, "If you adored a living God, I would excuse your folly; but you come and tell me that your God died, hanging upon an infamous wood." Simon replied, "The sun put on mourning when its Creator died, as does a slave when his master dies."

Although there were apostasies, as was to be expected, the majority were impervious to arguments, blandishments, threats, and even torture, for as with the Romans, this inhuman practice was often used. Death was usually inflicted by the sword, but sometimes it came in more lingering and cruel forms.

The Christians did their best to aid their brethren in distress. The corpses of the martyrs were exposed for the wild beasts and birds of prey, in accordance with the Persian custom. (Even to the present day the Parsees expose their dead on "Towers of Silence", since they regard the elements of earth, fire, and water as too holy to be defiled with corpses.) Except in a few cases where guards were stationed around the dead, the bodies of the martyrs were eagerly gathered up by the Christians, and laid to rest with due honors. When peace once more descended upon the stricken Church, the humble "martyria" erected over their remains, were replaced by splendid edifices and great monasteries, as memorials to these servants of God and as places of pilgrimage.

The influence of this persecution upon outsiders naturally varied. The Pagans and the Jews rejoiced over the misfortunes of the Nazarenes. Thus Afraat says of the Pagans, "These impious ones speak in this manner; 'If they have a God, why does He not avenge His people?' . . . The Jews also rail at us and raise themselves above the children of our people." He tells of a learned Jew who, quoting the words of Our Lord about the faith which moves mountains, asked if there were not among them a single sage whose prayers God would hear? However not infrequently the steadfastness of the martyrs so impressed the beholders that they joined themselves to them in order to share their glorious fate.

In 379 Sapor II died. Under his successor things evidently improved. Peace was re-established with Rome; and this probably benefited the Persian Church. At least the general persecution seems to have ceased. The hierarchy was re-established, in fact there were rival claimants for some sees, that which would seem to indicate a return to fairly normal conditions. It was not until 410 that peace was officially restored between the Persian King of Kings and the Church of the Heavenly King of Kings. Yazdigerd I began a policy of toleration which, barring occasional flare-ups of persecution lasted until the down-fall of the Sassanian Dynasty. A friend of peace, both at home and abroad, he saw the folly of alienating a large number of his subjects by a policy of harshness.

On the Christian side the chief figures in the negotiations were the Patriarch Isaac, and Maruta, a bishop from Roman Mesopotamia. The Romans often used these East Syrian bishops, with their knowledge of local conditions, as ambassadors to the Persian Court. Thus Maruta came with the double prestige of ambassador from the Emperor and legate from the "Western Fathers". To these he added the personal favor of the Persian king, due to his medical skill which enabled him to cure the monarch of a stubborn headache which had baffled the mages. The latter, "jealous to see Maruta stand so well in the king's mind, caused a voice to be heard when this prince came to adore the perpetual fire of which they make their divinity; and this voice, which seemed to come out of the fire, said that the king must be driven from the temple as an impious one, because he revered a pontiff of the Christians." The king, on the advice of the shrewd bishop, investigated and found the voice to come from a man concealed under the flame. Incensed at this trick of the mages, the king gave Maruta permission to build churches wherever he wished.

In the year 410 was held the Council of Seleucia, which held somewhat the same position in the Persian Church as did the Council of Nicaea in the Roman world. The king graciously gave his aid in assembling the bishops. Maruta read a letter from the "Western Fathers", and promulgated the Creed and Canons of the Council of Nicaea, to which the assembled prelates subscribed. Isaac, the Archbishop of Seleucia, was recognized as the head of the Persian Church. A group of Canons were adopted, regulating the discipline of the Church which had been previously in a somewhat chaotic condition. This was due partly to the rather loose organization of the Church and partly to the period of storm through which it had just passed. These Canons laid the basis for the centralization which characterized the later Persian Church. No more mass in private houses. One church in a parish. One bishop in a diocese. One metropolitan in a province. Over all, the bishop of the Royal Cities as Patriarch or Catholicos. At an audience at the Royal Palace the King of Kings confirmed the Canons by royal decree and promised the aid of the secular arm in enforcing them. After ordering public prayers and thanksgivings, the assembled prelates dispersed to bear to their flocks the good news of their freedom and worship.

But the Bible says truly, "Put not your faith in princes". By extending his favor to the Christians, Yazdigerd stirred up the hostility of the mages, as intolerant and powerful a priesthood as ever existed, and the most influential element in the realm. To increase their hatred the edict of toleration stirred up the Christians to fervent missionary activity. Converts were made in large numbers, including many adherents of the State religion. The king became alarmed, and tried to bring these back to Zoroastrianism. Just at this time the imprudent zeal of a Christian priest caused him to destroy a fire temple. His bishop disclaimed responsibility, but refused to rebuild the temple. Upon the king's death, his successor started a persecution which, if not as wide-spread as that of Sapor II, was in no way inferior in ferocity. Only a new treaty with Rome in 422 brought in its wake a renewal of toleration for the suffering Church.

The internal difficulties persisted. The unfortunate practice grew up of "pulling strings" at Court; and highly placed courtiers sought to make and unmake patriarchs. A group of patriarchs caused the legitimate patriarch, Dadisho, to be imprisoned by royal order. Although released through the intercession of the Emperor, Dadisho was thoroughly disgusted with the course of events and determined to resign and retire to a monastery. But the majority of the bishops rose up in arms, for they saw that their own security was bound up with that of their spiritual head. They assembled from all parts of the kingdom, even from as far as Central Asia. The supremacy of the Catholicos was upheld; no Synod could judge him, but could only address to him respectful remonstrances and supplications. The members all threw themselves at the feet of Dadisho, promising to support him and excommunicate the rebels. The Catholicos finally yielded to their entreaties and withdrew his resignation.

This Synod marks a turning point in the history of the Persian Church, for at it was proclaimed the autonomy and independence of the Church of the East. The reason given for this weighty step was that, whereas in the past the "Western Fathers" had greatly helped, both in obtaining relief from persecution and in healing schisms, the times no longer permitted them to occupy themselves with the Persian Church. Therefore the Persians must help themselves, and must turn to the Catholicos, "who is for us the Peter, the chief of our ecclesiastical assembly". It was ordained that "the Orientals will not be able to complain to the Western Patriarch of their Patriarch, and that every case that cannot be carried to the presence of the latter, shall be reserved to the judgment seat of Christ". Since it has been seen how recent and how helpful had been the intervention of these "Western Fathers" and of the Emperor, the reason given was evidently but a pretext. The real reason was doubtless the belief that by proclaiming the independence of their Church, they would be cutting the ground from under the feet of their enemies, who claimed that the Persian Church was but a subsidiary of the Roman Empire, and that thus Persian Christians were unpatriotic.

The falling away of the Persian Church into Nestorianism was largely due to this same desire to make their Church different from that of the Empire. It would take us too far afield to go into the details of the great theological controversies over the relation between the Divine and the Human Natures of Our Lord. As has too often been the case, the purely theological questions were nixed up with personal rivalries and the ambitions of the great Oriental sees, as also with the desire of the Emperor to play the role of maker of dogmas. The imperial favor was constantly shifting from Nestorianism to the opposite Monophysite heresy, with attempts at compromises which would mean all things to all men, and with occasional periods of Orthodoxy, as when the Tome of Pope Leo at the Council of Chalcedon furnished the solution to these perplexing questions. This vacillating and at the same time domineering policy of the Caesar of New Rome was largely responsible for the schisms which rent asunder the Oriental Church and paved the way for the later triumph of Islam. The Christians of the realm of the King of Kings and the non-Hellenic masses of the Roman Empire had no special love for Nestorius or Eutyches. But they had a hatred for the tyrant of New Rome and his coterie of subservient Greeks. Thus they welcomed the chance to set up great rival Churches, the Nestorian Church of Persia and the Monophysite Churches, which perpetuated heresies that would otherwise have died an early death.

The other cause for the triumph of Nestorianism in Persia was the influence of the great theological school of Edessa, which was a stronghold of those tendencies from which Nestorianism sprang. Theological learning was highly developed in the Syrian Church of this period and nowhere more so than at Edessa. Thither flocked students from across the border in such numbers that a "School of the Persians" was established to care for them. When in 489 a Roman Emperor friendly to the Monophysites ordered the closing of this school, the professors and students merely crossed the frontier to find refuge among their brethren in Persia.

At Nisibis these exiles found a warm friend in the metropolitan, Barsauma, himself an alumnus of Edessa and a pronounced Nestorian. Realizing the importance of learning in the defense of Nestorianism against the growing influence of the Monophysites, he re-established the school at Nisibis, where it flourished mightily and rivaled if it did not surpass its predecessor at Edessa.

This Barsauma was largely responsible for the triumph of Nestorianism in the Persian Church. He was a man of great ability, but also of boundless ambition and not over-burdened with scruples. His ability had won him great influence at Court; and he held an important royal appointment in addition to his ecclesiastical office. His ambition caused him to try to undermine the authority of the Catholicos. He was accused of having brought about the martyrdom of the Catholicos Babowai. The successor to the patriarchal throne, Acacius, was an alumnus of Edessa and a Nestorian. But this did not prevent continual difficulties between the two men, interspersed with reconciliations more apparent than real. With the double aim of establishing Nestorianism and of undermining the authority of the Catholicos, Barsauma held a Synod in 484, which he later repudiated as schismatic. But the doctrinal position of this Synod was later adopted by a general Council called by the Catholicos in 486.

Barsauma, as we have seen, stood high in royal favor—a fact of great help in his troubles with the Catholicos. He is said to have persuaded the monarch that it would be of great advantage if the Persian Christians professed a different form of belief from that of the Christians of the Empire, and to have obtained troops by which he imposed Nestorianism throughout the kingdom. According to the Monophysite historians much blood was spilled in the process, but this can be taken with the proverbial grain of salt.

Thus the rupture with Catholic unity was complete. By the proclamation of autonomy the ties uniting the Persian Church directly with Antioch and indirectly with the rest of the Catholic world had been sundered. By the adoption of Nestorianism not merely the rival heresy of the Monophysites but also the orthodox faith of Chalcedon was repudiated. However this break from Catholic unity was not as culpable as might seem at first sight. It must be remembered that the Persian Church had few if any direct relations with Rome, but only indirect ones through the Syrian Church, whose own relations with the Holy See were not always above reproach. As to Nestorianism, although Barsauma and some of his associates were pronounced Nestorians, the official position and that of the later theologians was quite moderate, differing but little from the Orthodox Faith. Their opposition was not directed so much against it as against the rival heresy of the Monophysites, who set up a rival and flourishing Church in the Persian Empire.

The limits of this article do not permit us to continue they history of the Persian Church after it became Nestorian. Suffice it to say that, despite occasional persecutions from without and frequent difficulties from within, it flourished mightly until the downfall of the Sassanian Empire. The hierarchy numbered some one hundred bishops. Monasticism flourished greatly. Learning reached a high plane. Missionary activity was intense and successful. Nor did the Arab Conquest and the rule of the Caliphs impede the progress of the Church. It was the bloody conquests of Tamerlane, who ravaged all these regions with fire and sword, that started the swift decline of the Nestorian Church, a decline which has continued until at present it numbers but a handful of adherents. In modern times a large proportion of them have returned to the Catholic Church, forming the Chaldaean Rite.

In conclusion, we might quote Labourt, one of the leading scholars in this field, "If one thinks of the strange upsets, caused by the religious policy of the Christian Caesars,—one is led to wonder if the Persian regime, apparently so unfavorable, was not more propitious than the Byzantine guardianship for the normal development of the Church and the efficacy of her propaganda, possessions more precious to her than the privileges which the most Orthodox governments have been able to afford her."

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