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Conversions and Persecutions for the Church in Iran

October 11, 2017

The Holy See’s Secretary for Relations with States, Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, returned from Iran on September 9, 2017, after a four-day visit. The media says little about this, but in the Land of the Mullahs the situation of the Latin Catholics continues to be more than precarious.

During his journey, Archbishop Gallagher was received by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohammad Javad Zarif, then by the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Abbas Salehi. The Holy See’s Secretary for Relations with States spoke on Vatican Radio of the goals of his visit. He said “relations are good” between Iran and the Holy See, and that the goal of the visit was to lead to future cooperation “to face some of the practical problems of [the Catholic] communities  that are a small minority.”

This minority has a precarious status, as the prelate’s very reserved remarks seem to imply; he expressed his worry at the situation of the Christians, in particular the Latin community. Archbishop Gallagher nonetheless wishes to remain optimistic: “There are still difficulties, but at least we have strengthened our relations and the possibilities, and ways of facing some of these problems, discussing them and helping”.

The Roman diplomat explained that the goal is still for the good relations between the two States – the Holy See and Iran – “to be reflected in good relations with the local Christian communities”. Indeed, living the Catholic Faith in Iran continues to be very difficult. Christians living in Iran – who according to Le Figaro’s estimates represented 0.26% of the population in 2004 – have two very different statuses.

On the one hand, there are the Chaldeans and Armenians – attached to Rome or not – which are the only Christian communities officially recognized by the State and therefore tolerated. They are, however, forbidden to proselytize; besides, one has to speak Syriac or Armenian to be able to enter these closed communities. These two groups, with about 100,000 faithful, are represented by three deputies in the Iranian Parliament, which is favorable treatment, since in general there is one deputy for every 200,000 Iranians.

On the other hand, the situation is quite different for the Latin Catholics who have no legal existence, even though many Muslims are drawn to Catholicism. As conversion is forbidden in Iran, Iranians who become Catholics – or whose parents are converts – and who have Muslim names, face great difficulties. On their official ID, these Christians remain Muslim and are not allowed to marry outside of Islam.

Fr. Pierre Humblot, a priest from Prado, estimated in an interview on Aleteia’s website in 2015 the number of conversions at “300,000, on the lower end”. He himself was accused of “proselytism” and forced to leave Iran hurriedly, after 45 years in the country.

Overall, “there is no systematic persecution, but officials can lose their positions, and students can be banished from the university,” remarked Yann Richard, a specialist on Iran and Eastern Christians, in the newspaper La Croix. The professor emeritus of the Sorbonne who spent several years at the French Research Institute in Tehran, Iran, nonetheless says there is “a multitude of cases” of Christians forced into exile in the West. This is particularly the case for young women who have converted to Christianity when they refuse to marry a Muslim.

The international organization Open Doors estimates that “at least 75 Christians were arrested in 2014 for their faith”. In its annual list of the 50 countries in the world where Christians are the most persecuted, the Islamic Republic of Iran was in 9th place (2016 World Index).

According to an Italian scholar quoted by Claire Lesegretain in the columns of La Croix, “there is no doubt that if Pope Francis accepted the invitation to come to Iran, huge crowds would come to hear him”. But there will be no such apostolic journey in the near future: “I haven’t heard any talk about a papal visit,” said Archbishop Gallagher after his return from Iran, adding without further comment, “I think we’re a long way from that.”

For more on this topic: Archbishop Lefebvre’s judgment on Islam