Christianity is certainly not the first thing that comes to ones mind when Iran is mentioned. But the cult has had a long history there, and the extent of Christian subversion in Pre-Islamic Iran is an understudied topic. From the faith of captured Roman soldiers and traitors to that of the King of Kings’ inner circle, it is an intriguing story that deserves to be told.
The earliest encounters between the Iranians and Christianity occurred during the Arsacid Parthian Empire. Christian lore speaks of the Magi bringing gifts to the newborn Jesus and according to the Book of Acts, the first group of converts to Christianity included some Persians. Christian accounts of this period speak of numerous missions sent to the east and it is likely that they had some success in converting the well established Jewish community in Arsacid held Mesopotamia. In the border cities between the Roman and Parthian Empires, today’s Syria, the Church took deep root and would have tremendous influence on the direction which the faith would take all across the Iranian world, from Mesopotamia to Bactria and Sogdia. One of the earliest Churches in the world, that at Dura-Europos in Iranian controlled Syria, dates from the Late Arsacids to the Early Sasanians.
When the Persian Sasanians took over, they found themselves in charge of a rather heterogeneous population, with a prominent Christian minority located right at the heart of Eranshahr. For a dynasty which heavily promoted itself as one reestablishing Behdin, the Good religion of Zoroaster, dealing with this cult would see different approaches.
“Persecution” and the limits of tolerance
The second King of Kings from House Sasan, Shapur I, inflicted great defeats upon the Romans and took many Roman soldiers captive. He used them as manpower to build a new city in Roman style, Bishapur. This bunch would later be resettled across the Empire. This almost certainly included some Christians, and thus, Shapur the Great had voluntarily imported the cult.
The early Sasanians clearly saw these cultists as un-Iranian but found themselves the overlords of both the older Christians and those whom they conquered. Shapur took the title of “King of Kings of Eran and Aneran,” thus claiming rulership over both the Aryans and the cultists. Under his successors, the High Priest Kardir managed to gain Imperial favour and in his inscriptions he mentions how he suppressed the Christians and Nasrenes (among others). But the first serious challenge from Christianity came from Armenia, Persia’s client Kingdom. The Arsacid ruler of Armenia, Tiridates III, abandoned the traditional faith and converted to Christianity.
He would go on to destroy Sacred Fires across Armenia and proclaimed Christianity the state religion and thus, Armenia became the world’s first Christian state. This would cause friction between the Persian court and Armenia, which a few succeeding King of Kings would try to mend but a permanent solution never came. The next Great King of Kings, Shapur II, would initially act ambivalent towards the Christians, but later on realise the threat they posed. They were disloyal to the Empire and acted as a fifth column for the newly Christianised Rome.
The King of Kings doubled the taxes on them, and declared: “Shemeon [The leader of the Sasanian Christians] wishes to make his followers and his people rebel against our Kingdom and convert them into the servants of Caesar, their coreligionist.” Christian martyrologies and hagiographies of this era claim that thousands were killed under Shapur and they rather proudly state the deeds of the martyrs such desecrating Zoroastrian Sacred Fires but in any case, many of them fled Eranshahr. One group would reach India and establish themselves in Kerala, coming to be known as the Nasranis.
Tensions with Rome and Armenia would remain despite intermarriages between the Armenians and Persians and the King of Kings would keep a close eye on the Christians of his Empire, until Yazederd I. He acknowledged the Christians as a legitimate group, brought the Church of the East in Iran under the royal bureaucracy and permitted them many freedoms. He would come to regret this decision as the Christians would abuse their newly granted “freedom of religion” to attack and desecrate Sacred Fires claiming them to be corrupt and un-Christian. Several Christians went so far as to claim this as a victory of Christianity over the heathens. Yazdegerd had no choice but to execute several Christian leaders. However, around this time (or possibly earlier), the Mesopotamian province of Asorestan (Assyria) became Christian majority.
Rats, traitors and infiltrators
During the reign of Bahram V, a group of Christians would take refuge in the Eastern Roman Empire and manage to convince the Emperor to wage war against Iran to defend Iranian Christians. In the treaty that followed the war, Iran had to agree to “tolerate” the Christians. Many Christians began to take up high office under his reign. Armenian nobles instigated a pro-Roman movement, in response to which Bahram V annexed parts of Armenia. By now, a significant number of soldiers and elites of the Empire were Christians and, as Bahram’s successor Yazdegerd II would discover, treacherous ones at that.
The Christians in his army would betray him during the Kidarite wars and the newly integrated Armenian Christian nobles would openly support rebellion. The Sasanians would manage to crush the Armenian rebellion, but the victory would prove to be pyrrhic. By this time, there were many Christian nobles like the Arsacids of the Caucasus who through marriage were related to the House of Sasan. This would turn out to be disastrous in the future. Under Peroz I and Balash, the Christians of the Empire would get further organised and a treaty was signed with the Armenians guaranteeing them “freedom” of religion. However, according to the same treaty, all Sacred Fires left standing in Armenia would be extinguished.
Under Kavadh I, a disturbing phenomenon arose. The distinction of Christians as un-Iranian seems to have blurred, and we start seeing many Christians with Iranian names. The corpse went from being seen as a Roman figure and was starting to get acknowledged as a universal one, and one that deserved adoration at that as evidenced by several ostraca and bullae. One late Sasanian amulet for example, invokes Jesus to cast away demons from an Iranian woman named Perozdukht.
Khosrow I, He of the Immortal Soul, despite his timely check of the Mazdakite cult did not effectively deal with the Christian one. His punishment of the Christian fifth columnists including the elites who colluded with the Romans would be insufficient and his own son Anoshazad, born of a Christian woman, tried to usurp the throne and declare Iran a Christian nation in a failed attempt. Khosrow II, who would wage a destructive war with the Romans and hold on to Egypt for some time had to patronise the Monophysite Church to legitimise himself there.
It is difficult to overstate the importance of Christianity by the late Sasanian period. Many Syriac sources speak of Princes and Nobles as Christians. A significant portion of the surviving middle Persian literature from this era is actually Christian in character and during this era, Christianity started gaining traction among the Arab vassals of the Sasanians.
During the reign of Kavadh II, murderer and usurper of Khosrow II’s Throne, and who incidentally happened to be the son of a Christian Princess, a legend that the founder of the Sasanian Empire, Ardashir I, was in fact a Christian who along with his Vizier Abarsom converted to Christianity after one of the Apostles revived his dead Horse. Considering how favourably disposed Kavadh II was to the Christians, one would wonder if he was in fact a crypto-Christian.
The dealings of Christians increasingly became central to the Iranian court, and after the “True Cross” (on which Jesus was said to have been crucified) which Khosrow II took from Jerusalem as a souvenir was returned to the Romans, the Romans intervened in the Iranian succession and had a Christian Persian named Niketas, the son of the Iranian general and usurper Shahrbaraz, was briefly placed on the Iranian Throne. Four years and several King of Kings after Kavadh, the young Yazdegerd III sat on the throne of a battered and devastated Empire and faced the Arabs, now under the banner of Islam. He would die while fleeing, and was buried as a Christian by Christian monks. His descendants who fled to Tang China would vanish from history after being recorded that they sponsored the building of Nestorian Churches in China. So ended the House of Sasan which claimed descent from the Gods.
People of the Book
While the Romans saw the Arab invaders as following a heretical sect of Judaism, the Iranians would have seen them early on as the followers of a peculiar form of Christianity. The Christians of Iran initially welcomed their Arab brethren’s conquest of Iran. They were quickly recognised as people of the Book and fellow Monotheists and were granted privileges that the Iranians were not. Though later dynasties did persecute the Christians, they fared much better than the Zoroastrians. During the Abbasid Caliphate, while the Zoroastrians like Mardanfarrokh and others managed to put up apologetics against the Christians and even win at debates, Zoroastrians were heavily persecuted as Kufr while the Christians were more benignly treated as Zimmis. As late as in Safavid times, the Christians were allowed to pray freely and after a deal with the Europeans even allowed to proselytise while the Zoroastrians remained untouchables and were the victims of several massacres. It is pertinent to note that while several of the oldest Christian Churches and Monasteries such as the Assyrian Church of St. Mary and the Monastery of St. Thaddeus remain standing to this day, with some still functioning, the most sacred of Sasanian Fires are all in ruins, with some completely lost and their locations forgotten.
The Islamic Republic
To this day, the number of Christians in Iran is several times greater than that of Zoroastrians. The Islamic Republic more or less guarantees their right to practice their religion with the exception of prohibiting them from preaching. The Islamic Republic has left a lot of Iranians poor, discontented and angry, and Christpests thrive wherever there are malcontents. Christian organisations claim that thousands of Iranian Muslims keep converting to their religion rather regularly. Conversion to Christianity also remains quite prevalent in the diaspora.
I trust that my fellow HindNats will draw appropriate lessons from the Iranian experience.