• Yoshika Lowe

Christmas in Iran

Updated: Nov 25, 2019

A Brief History

For most of its history, the area now known as Iran was called Persia. It became Iran in 1935. The First Persian Empire-- the Achaemenid Empire--was founded by Cyrus the Great. About 200 years later, Alexander the Great of Greece conquered Persia and ushered in the Hellenistic period. Over the next nine centuries, Persia would variously become part of the Seleucid Empire, the Parthian Empire, and the Sassanid Empire.

The history of Christianity in Iran goes back to the 2nd century,as noted in Acts 2:9, “Parthians [Iranians], Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia..” were among the first Christian converts at Pentecost. Syriac documents also indicate that towards the beginning of the third century the Christians in the Persian territories had about three hundred and sixty churches, and many martyrs.


Assyrian relief, Iran

The first century Jewish historian Josephus mentions that a king of Adiabene--an ancient kingdom in Assyria--accepted Judaism about AD 36. This conversion event made Arbela a natural center for Jewish Christian mission at an early date.

Christianity spread in both towns and cities; by the end of the Parthian period (AD 225), there were Christian communities from Edessa (in modern day Turkey)--an important missionary center-- to Afghanistan. Although thousands of Persians practiced Christianity, Persia remained Zoroastrian.

When the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and legalized Christianity throughout the empire, the faith became associated with Iran's nemesis. The conversion of Armenians to Christianity and defection of some Armenian army units to Rome led to persecutions that lasted for a century after they had ceased in Rome.

The conquest of Islam in the seventh century put an end to freedom of religion throughout the area. All polytheistic and pagan religions were banned altogether with all other Near and Far Eastern religions. Allah--a term used by Arab Christians since pre-Islamic times-- meaning god, became the only sovereign god, the almighty. Thus, Christianity and Judaism were accepted as the only other true religions and their holy scriptures were accepted as such.

Nasir Ol Fluid

Nasir Ol Fluid

The Crusades made things worse for Eastern Christians during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Muslims came to hate all Christians in the Muslim world, while Latin Christians despised the Eastern Christians as heretics. During the Crusades, Latin Christians gained control of the Holy Land, but prevented the local (Eastern) Christians from going on pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

The Mongols conquered Baghdad, the center of the Muslim Empire, in 1258. For a while, this was favorable for Christians, as the rulers openly declared themselves Christians or were partial to Christianity. However, under later Mongol rulers, many churches and mosques were destroyed and thousands of Christians and Muslims were killed. Turkmen tribes were the next wave of conquerors, but were finally defeated in the 1592.

During the last five centuries, Christianity has been tolerated but oppressed. The Islamic Revolution of 1979 guaranteed religious freedom to Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians. They may even elect representatives to Parliament. However, due to Shariat law, non-Muslims are effectively prevented from being employed in governmental positions.

Christmas Today

Although Iran is now a Muslim majority country, Christmas decor can be seen in many shops across the country-- especially in big cities like Tehran--which has a higher concentration of Christians. Iranian Christians celebrate Christmas on December 25th just as in the west. However, the majority of Iranian Christians are Armenian, who celebrate Christmas on January 6th, Epiphany.

Hossein Salmanzadeh [CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Store front in Tehran

Just as in many other countries in the world, Christmas decorations in Iran include Christmas trees. While it is common knowledge that the decorating of trees as part of a feast day comes from ancient pagan practices, many may be surprised to discover that this practice originated in Ancient Persia. For more information about the Persian origins of the 'Christmas' tree, search 'Yalda and Christmas Trees.'

It is believed that Martin Luther introduced the tree as a symbol of Christianity by bringing it into the home to be decorated. He is said to have likened the Christmas tree to symbols of Christ: new life (being evergreen) and light (the candles used to decorate it).

There will be nativity scenes and ornaments in homes and stores. Stars adorn shop windows and are placed atop Christmas trees. In fact, one of the most iconic symbols of Christmas, the Star of Bethlehem, is also tied directly to the influence of Persia*. Persian Zoroastrian priests--Magi-- used their study of the stars to direct them to Jesus as a young child.

St. Sarkis Cathedral, Tehran

St. Sarkin Cathedral, Tehran

There are more than 600 churches in Iran that hold Christmas services on Christmas night. As is the custom in every country where people celebrate Christmas, the most important part of the celebration is being with family and friends.

Feasting is also a part of the celebration. However, for Iranian Christians, the season begins with fasting. Beginning on December 1st, people will eat no meat, eggs or dairy products. This fast is called the Little Fast (as opposed to the Great Fast before Easter). It is meant to purify the mind, body and spirit. The fast is broken only after receiving communion on Christmas morning. Then people go home and partake of the Little Feast. The Christmas day feast will consist of harissa, which is a chicken stew with barley. Families will make a large quantity of it and eat it over several days. Some families will have roast turkey. The Christmas feast can also consist varied other dishes such as grapevine dolma (stuffed grapevine leaves), tripe soup, and savory rice and lamb dishes.

Iranian children usually get new clothes for Christmas, but rarely any other gifts. "Christmas mobarak" is Merry Christmas is in Farsi (Persian).

Prayer Point

Preaching, evangelism and publishing Christian materials in Farsi is illegal. At least 40 Christians are in prison for their faith. Because of the laws, people of all non-Muslim faiths face discrimination and persecution.

  • Pray for Christians that have been imprisoned.

  • Pray for courage and protection for those who are wanting to share their faith.

  • Pray for the hundreds of house churches meeting all over the country in Iran.

  • Pray against infiltrators who pose as believers in order to turn members over to the authorities.

  • Pray for wisdom so that neighbors do not report on the house churches.

  • Pray for the spiritual needs of religious minorities such as Zoastrians, Roma, and Baha’i.

U.S. and European sanctions have caused hyperinflation and many Iranians are suffering economically.

  • Pray for Iran's economy and financial well being.

  • Pray for families who are living below the poverty line

  • Pray against discrimination and for Christians to find favor with their employers.

  • Pray for Christians to devise ways to create businesses and provide employment.

  • Pray for Christians to be a good example at work.

According to Heart Iran, many Persians have reported that they have seen visions or had dreams of a 'man in white clothing.' They say that this has become a common way that Muslims in Iran are coming to Christ. Some mullahs (Muslim clerics) have turned to Christ and some have come to Christ while studying in Islamic seminaries.

  • Pray that dreams and visions would continue to help lead Persians to Jesus.

  • Pray for mullahs, that they will meet and be impacted by the lives and testimonies of Christians.

  • Pray for Islamic seminary students to find Christ

According to the Iran 30, women in Iran face discrimination as well. A woman's testimony in court is worth half a mans. A man can have four wives and as many temporary ones as he pleases. In divorce, a man can initiate proceedings for many reasons, while a woman has limited exceptions for filing.

  • Pray for more women to follow Jesus and to find freedom in Him.

  • Pray for their legal position to be improved.

Drug addiction and depression are rampant in Iran. The government estimates as many as four million are addicts. Heroin comes in from neighboring Afghanistan. Estimates are that 70% of the all heroin confiscated worldwide is seized in Iran. As many as 70% of young people, especially girls battle depression. Unemployment, drugs, oppressive religious policies, and discriminatory legislation all play a role.

  • Pray for addicts and their families, that they be set free from addiction and set free spiritually.

  • Pray for the government as it fights drug kingpins on the Iran-Afghanistan border.

  • Pray for the chronically depressed, that they find peace.

  • Pray for Christians to be equipped to minister to the depressed.

  • Pray for those who care for the depressed and the drug addicts: nurses, doctors and families.

*As will be discussed in greater detail on Sunday, Week 4 of Advent, the Magi were stargazers or astrologers. How they came to expect or even seek the sign of the Christ child's star is a matter of speculation. However, a plausible reason would be the influence of Daniel. One of the titles given to Daniel was Chief of the Magi after he interpreted Nebuchadnezzar's dream. As such, he may have entrusted a Messianic prophecy (Numbers 24:17) to a trusted group of Magi.

#Iran #Persia