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Christians and Jews in Iran

The constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran recognizes Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism as official religions.

Judaism and Christianity in Iran are represented by small but significant religious communities that can also be regarded, to some extent, as distinct ethnic groups.

Esther And Mordecai
Esther and Mordecai is a 1685 oil on panel painting by Arent de Gelder, a pupil of Rembrandt.

Jews in Iran

Jews have lived in Iran since ancient times, and Iran has a special place in Jewish history and the development of Judaism: Cyrus the Great, who liberated the Jews from the Babylonian captivity and authorized the rebuilding of the Temple, was called by Isaiah the “anointed of the lord”; Queen Esther and Mordechai supposedly lived at the court of an Iranian king (their tombs are still believed to be in Hamadân, home to one of the country’s largest Jewish communities).

The Tomb Of Esther And Mordechai In Hamedan, Iran.
The Tomb of Esther and Mordechai in Hamedan, Iran.

The Jews did not always enjoy the special favor given them in Achaemenid times, but the community flourished and become so thoroughly assimilated—speaking Persian and adopting Iranian customs—as to be recognizably different from other Iranians only in their religious identity.Prior to the Revolution of 1979–80 there were about 80,000 Jews in Iran; the number has since dropped to less than 20,000.

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Christianity in Iran

Christianity also has a long, but rather complicated, history in Iran. According to Christian tradition, contacts with Iran began with the visit of the Three Wise Men (Magi; Iranian priests) to Bethlehem and continued through the first century with the visits of various apostles to spread Christianity in the east.

Armenians In Tehran’s St. Sarkis Cathedral
Armenians in Tehran’s St. Sarkis Cathedral. Photo by Mehr News Agency

By the third century, Christianity was flourishing throughout the Sassanid empire and organized into what could be called an officially recognized “Persian Church.”

Once Christianity became the official religion of the Late Roman/Byzantine empire, Sassanid Iran’s main enemy, Christians were suspected of being a potentially subversive fifth column in the country and sometimes subjected to severe persecution.


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The doctrinal intolerance of the Western church, however, drove many Christian dissidents, especially Nestorians, to seek refuge in Iran, where they were welcomed and encouraged to propagate their faith.

Saint Thaddeus Cathedral
Saint Thaddeus Cathedral (Qara Kelissa), West Azarbaijan, Iran. Believed by some to have been first built in 66 AD by Saint Jude. Local Armenians believe that he and Simon were both buried here.

From the fifth century onwards, the “Persian Church” was essentially independent from the West in administration and Nestorian in doctrine. After the rise of Islam, the presence of Christianity in Iran gradually eroded.

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The main surviving remnant of this ancient Christian community in Iran is now found among the people generally known as “Assyrians.”

There are approximately 60,000 Assyrians in Iran, concentrated in the area around Lake Urmia.

A little less than half of them still belong to the Ancient Church of the East, which rejects all of the Orthodox Church Councils except for the Council of Nicaea and follows the quasi-Nestorian theology of Theodore of Mopsuestia (d. 428).

Half are Eastern Catholics (“Chaldeans”), who broke away from the Ancient Church of the East in the sixteenth century. They also have a liturgy in Syriac but are in communion with Rome and accept the theology of the Catholic Church.

Assyrian Universal Alliance In Tehran
The 50th establishment anniversary of Assyrian Universal Alliance in Tehran. Photo by Mehr News Agency

The remaining Assyrians, two or three thousand in number, are converts to Protestantism.

Armenians make up the other, and by far the largest, group of Christians in contemporary Iran (numbering well over a quarter million). When Armenia was under Safavid rule, Shah ‘Abbâs forced as many as 300,000 Armenians to relocate to New Julfa, a suburb of his capital at Isfahan; it remains the spiritual and cultural center of Armenian Christianity in Iran.

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SURFIRAN Editorial Team

SURFIRAN is an Iranian tour operator and travel agency offering tour packages to those interested in Iran. It provides the tourists with services needed to travel to Iran, offers tours across the country, and assists the tourists in obtaining Iranian visas.

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One Comment

  1. Hello! I am an American Christian who is on assignment for National Christian publishing company seeking information on How the Zoroaster Maji actually got to Jerusalem…. Yours is the first English speaking website I’ve found at alll who features Persian and Parthian ancient sites. I have been doing months and months and months of research… I am certain I know more about Ancient Persia than the majority of your people do! It is a beautiful country with a remarkable history! It shaped the world, no doubt.., especially your great kings Cyrus and Darius..Here is where I am stumped: Undoubtably their caravan needed to be siZeable for many reasons (there were 20-23 total Maji or Zoroaster priests, not 3) Therefore, if they took the road to the mountains through Ecbatana west, was their a city, village at Kermanshah? Does that trail/road go straight ahead into Ctesiphon? (The lower road to Diful seems too difficult With more water.. ) Exactly where Did Alexander cross the Zagros Mountains? Where did those caravans on the Silk Road cross the Z’s? Is the Persian gate there also, from Ecbatana to Ctesiphon? Was there still that stone pathway at least partially in tact Alexander and Persians used? How many miles across is that Area? 150? That meant it would have taken them up to at least a week to cross those mountains there… keep in mind, that crossing would have been between August/September when it was just getting cool as was the desert too… Now, next big question is: Had the Romans yet built a bridge from Ctesiphon to Seleucid.? Or did the entire caravan need to take barges across the Tigress River, to have the camels and horses swim…both of whom are excellent swimmers? Then, was the ancient bridge at Babylon across the Euphrates still in use in early First Century AD… There were fire temples at both Persian cities.. maybe not in Once Greek Selecuia..THE PRIESTS HAD TO GO TO THOSE FIRE TEMPLES ALONG THE WAY…For bathing, Prayer etc. EVEN THOUGH THEY BROUGHT BURNING WOOD CHIP
    COALS WITH THEM WHICH COULD NOT GO OUT (be extinguished.) Were there any Zoroaster Fire Temples in Jerusalem or Galilee? I know there was one in Damascus… These are the types of questions I wrestle with daily to find no answers on line…. Perhaps you could direct me to one of your Iranian professors of Ancient Persian Studies who speaks English. I, too, was a college professor, but in Creative Writing until I retired ten years ago… the libraries have hoards of books, but just do not answer mundane questions such as these. Your help would be appreciated. Merci! Your site is very interesting, well researched and formatted. Thank you so much for it! The blessings of our one God be with each of you!

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