Iran: Last of the Assyrians

One of world’s oldest faith groups survives in Iran
October 13, 2010
Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad meets the Catholicos Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East, Mar Dinkha IV, in Tehran, September 2010. (Photo: Amir Kholoosi, ISNA)
Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad meets the Catholicos Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East, Mar Dinkha IV, in Tehran, September 2010. (Photo: Amir Kholoosi, ISNA)
Mar Dinkha IV (left) and Ayatollah Mohammad-Ali Taskhiri (right) at a meeting of the Centre for Interreligious Dialogue and Civilisations, September 2010. (Photo: Mohsen Rezaei, Mehr News Agency)
Mar Dinkha IV (left) and Ayatollah Mohammad-Ali Taskhiri (right) at a meeting of the Centre for Interreligious Dialogue and Civilisations, September 2010. (Photo: Mohsen Rezaei, Mehr News Agency)
Yonatan Bet-Kolia, who holds the parliamentary seat reserved for Assyrians (right), with Mar Dinkha IV and others. (Photo: Mohammad Reza Abbasi, Mehr News Agency)
Yonatan Bet-Kolia, who holds the parliamentary seat reserved for Assyrians (right), with Mar Dinkha IV and others. (Photo: Mohammad Reza Abbasi, Mehr News Agency)
Assyrian choir in Tehran. (Photo: Azin Zanjani, Mehr News Agency)
Assyrian choir in Tehran. (Photo: Azin Zanjani, Mehr News Agency)
Assyrians from Iraq on a visit to Iran. (Photo: Mohammad-Reza Shekari, Mehr News Agency)
Assyrians from Iraq on a visit to Iran. (Photo: Mohammad-Reza Shekari, Mehr News Agency)
Mar Dinkha IV presides at a church service in Tehran. (Photo: Raouf Mohseni, Mehr News Agency)
Mar Dinkha IV presides at a church service in Tehran. (Photo: Raouf Mohseni, Mehr News Agency)
Assyrian church rituals. (Photo: Raouf Mohseni, Mehr News Agency)
Assyrian church rituals. (Photo: Raouf Mohseni, Mehr News Agency)
Female choir in procession. (Photo: Raouf Mohseni, Mehr News Agency)
Female choir in procession. (Photo: Raouf Mohseni, Mehr News Agency)
Celebrating the Eucharist in an Assyrian church. (Photo: Hamid Bazgosha, Mehr News Agency)
Celebrating the Eucharist in an Assyrian church. (Photo: Hamid Bazgosha, Mehr News Agency)
Eucharist rites, Tehran. (Photo: Hamid Bazgosha, Mehr News Agency)
Eucharist rites, Tehran. (Photo: Hamid Bazgosha, Mehr News Agency)
Mar Dinkha IV appoints a new priest. (Photo: Raouf Mohseni, Mehr News Agency)
Mar Dinkha IV appoints a new priest. (Photo: Raouf Mohseni, Mehr News Agency)
Newly-appointed priest. (Photo: Raouf Mohseni, Mehr News Agency)
Newly-appointed priest. (Photo: Raouf Mohseni, Mehr News Agency)
Yonatan Bet-Kolia (centre) with Mohammad Reza Rahimi, former Iranian vice-president. (Photo: Mohsen Sajjadi, Mehr News Agency)
Yonatan Bet-Kolia (centre) with Mohammad Reza Rahimi, former Iranian vice-president. (Photo: Mohsen Sajjadi, Mehr News Agency)
Holy Communion in an Assyrian church in Tehran. (Photo: Sarah Sassani, Mehr News Agency)
Holy Communion in an Assyrian church in Tehran. (Photo: Sarah Sassani, Mehr News Agency)
Assyrian sacred text, written in the New Aramaic language. (Photo: Raouf Mohseni, Mehr News Agency)
Assyrian sacred text, written in the New Aramaic language. (Photo: Raouf Mohseni, Mehr News Agency)

Iran’s small Assyrian community is part of an ethnic and religious community scattered across the Middle East, which was among the first to adopt Christianity.

This community speaks a form of Aramaic and traces its roots back to the mighty Assyrian empire that once dominated Mesopotamia, now Iraq.

In recent decades, Assyrians have emigrated from their homelands, which include Iraq, Syria and Turkey as well as Iran, and are now found all over the world, from Australia to the United States. Iraq, in particular, has seen a wholesale exodus because of attacks on Christians, part of the violence and chaos that ensued after the 2003 invasion.

In Iran, the Assyrians are a recognised minority, entitling them to a seat in parliament. The present incumbent, Yonatan Bet-Kolia, estimates the current Assyrian population at about 20,000.

Among the world’s earliest Christians, the Assyrians are divided, in Iran, between two main churches – the original, independent Assyrian Church of the East, sometimes referred to as Nestorians, and the Chaldean Catholic Church, which owes allegiance to the Vatican. There are also well-established Assyrian Evangelical and Pentecostal churches.

In 2008, Bet-Kolia was elected head of the International Union of Assyrians, and a decision was taken to transfer its main office from Chicago to Tehran.

Iranian officials seized on the move as something of a coup, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said he hoped it would mean that “American power would continue to diminish”.

Babak Kermani is the pseudonym of a Tehran-based journalist.

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