The experience of coexistence between Muslims and Christians in Iran:
from neighborhood to global dialogue
Islam and Christianity have the highest population rate in the world; accordingly, any understanding between these two great religious communities would play a significant role in dialogue of different religions and nations, thereby helping to create a better mutual understanding between followers of these religions and their coexistence at the global scale.
Nowadays, the necessity of dialogue between Muslims and Christians is publicly accepted; besides, as many experts believe, the current atmosphere in Iran so far as Muslim-Christian encounters and dialogue are concerned accounts for Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) pioneer-ship in the region, giving the hope for its influence on Muslim-Christian relations in the world while becoming one of the global poles of Muslim-Christian dialogue. Alongside regular meetings endeavored by Vatican and the World Council of Churches, other centers and institutions in Iran, in addition to their active presence in the mentioned meetings, have been in charge of holding and managing the Muslim-Christian dialogue.
However, the relations of Islam-Christianity, as two Abrahamic monotheistic religions originally based on God’s revelation, have not always been as coupled with tolerance and openness as they have been expected to be. The roots of intolerance manifested by followers of these two religions throughout some historical periods, is traced back more to exclusivism of religious institutions and interferences of political powers than the teachings of Islam-Christianity.
In the Quranic view, Christians are endowed with excellence in fortune and acceptance of truth. The existence of “scholars who firmly believe in their religious teachings”, alongside “ascetics and monks who are clear manifestation of religious teachings” and “no arrogance among Christians” are three factors that, in the Quranic view, increase the acceptance of religious truth by Christians, thereby making them closer to Muslims in friendship and empathy: “and nearest among them in love to the believers wilt thou find those who say “We are Christians”: because amongst these are men devoted to learning and men who have renounced the world, and they are not arrogant” (Al-Maeda: 82).
The Criterion of Coexistence in Iran
The acquaintance of the Iranians with Christianity has an old history and the Iranians have played a crucial role in welcoming this divine religion. Though the historical presence of this religion has had its ups and downs, it has had the vivacity of a divine religion in our country. However, the experience of Islam-Christianity encounter in Iran, from the advent of Islam in the seventh century AD to date, can be pictured in four different periods.
Period of Tolerance and Openness
Advent of Islam and expansion of Islamic rule along with the collapse of the Sassanid Empire in Iran brought about a special condition for people and followers of different religions especially Christianity. When, during this period, Islam entered Iran, it encountered different followers and religions such as Zoroastrians, Jews, Christians, Sabeans, and some other religious denominations; as Islam considered them “Ahl e Kitab” (People of the Book), then it treated them according to Islamic laws based on “social contract” and accepted higher social rights for them than it had in mind for pagans. During this period, Christians found a desirable condition for organizing their community and church while spending a period of peace.
The Abbasid era and particularly the 70 years of rule of Harun and Ma’mun (766-833 AH), as the period of Islam’s openness to Greek thought and its transformation in the presence of Islamic thought as well as the period of the advent of translation and composition of Greek and Christian works, can be considered as one of the golden periods of Christianity in Iran; a period in which inter-faith dialogues flourished in Iran and religious tolerance and openness experienced a path to growth.
Period of Fall
Mongol invasion of areas of Persia and Mesopotamia was a disastrous incident which destroyed both financial and cultural sources of Islamic community and Persia and was so hard on Christian followers. The 13th century AD was a period of decline of Christianity in Iran and this cycle still continues its descending move and Christian population gradually declined to a small minority except Assyrians in West Azerbaijan and within other parts of the country. The main possible factors leading to decline of Muslim-Christian relations over this period of Iran’s history include: limitation and specialty of Syriac language, expansion of Asian land, and particularly mass murders of the Christian community by the Mongol tribes.
Period of Revival
The Safavid era can be called the period of revival of Christianity in Iran; for the political considerations and cordial relations with Western governments as well as prevention of Ottoman influence, not only did the Safvaid government open the way for internal religious minorities, but it was also open to foreign propagators and Christian missionaries. As colonialism increased in Iran and sub-continents, Christian priests entered these regions from England, France, Portugal, and other powerful European countries. Moreover, political conditions beyond Iran’s borders such as Ottoman harsh policy towards Christian community made several Christian groups migrate to Iran. In the seventh century, two Catholic churches from Dominican and Jesuit sects were established in Isfahan; over this period, other denominations in addition to the main and known Christian denominations such as the Capuchins, Carmelites, Augustinians, Jesuits and Dominicans gradually started their activity inside Iran.
Period of global dialogue
Islam and Christianity have been witness to some new phenomena over the past few decades, most importantly, engagement of their followers in real social, national and international life scenes. Over the two recent periods, official Catholic change of perspective towards Islam in the Second Vatican Council followed by formation of the World Council of Churches in Christendom on the one hand; the victory of the Islamic Revolution and the rise of Shiite rule in Iran on the other, opened a new door to Islam-Christianity relations which can be called the period of Islam-Christianity dialogue or rather global dialogue. Islamic Revolution is a religious revolution aiming to organize various social areas based on religious teachings. Therefore, it is important to consider the view of this revolution towards other religions and their relations with more prominent religions, on the top of which is Christianity.
It is necessary to distinguish between Iran’s status over this period: Iran before the revolution, Iran after the revolution, and Iran as a Shia country. Both pre- and post-revolution Iran are influenced by Shiite culture; a wisdom culture which does not distinguish between humans and respects their humanity- either calls them religious brother or considers them equal in humanity- all contributing to the formation of a culture which does not recognize a specific paradigm in the context of time. Though the movements derived from this culture may sometimes move contrary to the main direction, Iran has always had an open and pacifist culture.
After the revolution, dialogue centers were quite active; secretariat of Inter-religious Dialogue of the Islamic Culture and Relations Organization, currently known as Center for Inter-religious Dialogue, pioneered in this area. Then, other institutions were formed such as the Institute for Inter-religious Dialogue, which is one of the highly active non-governmental institutions in this field. International Center for Dialogue among Civilizations and the University of Religions and Denominations also appeared within the cultural context of post-revolution Iran. A large part of Muslim-Christian dialogues in Iran is an outcome of the activities of the four aforementioned institutions.
Prayer in an age of global dialogue
This conference will be held to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the Day of Prayer organized by John Paul II in 1986. Therefore, I would like to conclude my talk by pointing to the importance of Prayer in the current age as one of the powerful foundations of global Muslim-Christian dialogue. Muslim-Christian Dialogue and Co-existence on a scale as large as the contemporary world require common grounds to make sympathy among various sects and schools of followers of the two religions possible, and we believe that the elixir of prayer has this power and requires specific attention during the period of global dialogue.
Prayer is a necessity raised from man’s current condition. When the existence of human being on this planet is explained by a creation which involves separation from the divine world, prayer attains importance. Due to his truth-seeking nature and from his dawn of creation, human being has found prayer and appealing to God as a means of liberation from the cycle of material and spiritual sufferings. Accordingly, prayer constitutes a great deal of heritage of divine religions, particularly Islam and Christianity.
Therefore, the image of human life presented by Islam and Christianity is a three-stage process: 1. when man was in the divine realm; 1. when man and the divine realm got separated; 3. when man enters the divine realm again. Prayer is a prescription for the confused human suffering from separation; a means by which separation of man from the spiritual world is gone even for a few seconds. Not only do Muslims and Christians have a lot in common in concept of prayer, but the principle of prayer suggests that all of us -Muslims and Christians- are created from one single divine source moving towards the same destination.
Attention to prayer is more efficient in the period of global Islam-Christianity dialogue than any other period, moreover, we will be able to surmount challenges of co-existence by taking benefit from such divine gift. The essence of prayer and invocation is “search for God” and that everything will be easy if we put God first. We have learnt from Jesus that “But seek you first the kingdom of God and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33). This is the common teaching of all prophets, a foundation which provides the ground for Muslim-Christian co-existence in an age of global dialogue.