An arduous journey and close surveillance faced the wise men who came seeking the birth of Jesus. Traditionally thought to be Persians, their challenges are echoed in the monitoring and risks faced by Iranians who celebrate Christ’s birth today.
Everyone who has ever watched or taken part in a Nativity play knows that some of the first people to recognise Jesus Christ after his birth were “wise men from the East”. How many there were or precisely where they came from Matthew doesn’t tell us in his Gospel (Matthew 2:1-12). But his use of the Persian title “Magi” and mention of three gifts gave rise to the tradition of three (named) men hailing from Persia. Legends circulating in Marco Polo’s day (the twelfth century) even name the Persian cities they came from – Saveh, Hawah, and Kashan.
In Christmas 2013, modern-day Persians or Iranians also know of Jesus’ birth, but recognising him for who he is brings risks.
Press TV, Iran’s state news service, has shown in previous years (2012, 2008) how Christmas is observed by Iran’s Armenian and Assyrian communities. Last year outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad released a statement praising Jesus as prophet – “the messenger of humanity and grace”, and we can expect similar congratulations from President Rouhani to the 150,000 or so members of Iran’s historic Christian communities this year.
What these public statements don’t tell you are the dangers faced by those from non-Christian backgrounds who want to gather for worship. Nor the restrictions imposed on churches that try to hold services in Farsi, the language of most of Iran’s 66 million people.
In May 2013, one of Iran’s oldest Protestant churches, the Assemblies of God Central Church in Tehran, was closed and its pastor sentenced – apparently for continuing to hold services in Farsi as well as in Armenian. Pastor Asseriyan has been released but the church has not been allowed to reopen.
While a handful of other churches, including Anglican and Presbyterian, still arrange some worship in Farsi, there are few permitted opportunities for Iranians to delve any deeper into the meaning of Christmas beyond buying and decorating Christmas trees and exchanging presents.
These, along with western-style Santa decorations, and even some tableaus of the Nativity can be seen in some shops in Tehran. But the authorities show zero tolerance for people from the majority population who embrace Christianity.
Churches have been told not to hold services on Fridays (a non-working day) and are often encouraged not to publicise their services, one observer told me. Some are speaking of a “slow squeeze on Persian speaking churches”, he added.
There have been waves of arrests of Christian converts over the last three Christmas periods. On 23 December, 2011, Iranian authorities raided the Assemblies of God church in Ahvaz as church members gathered for a service and arrested everyone, including children. Four members were later sentenced to twelve months imprisonment in October 2012. The pastor’s wife, Shahnaz Jayzan and another minister, Davoud Alijani, have not yet been released.
One Iranian church leader estimated the number of believers forced to worship in unregistered house churches at around 200,000. People from non-Christian backgrounds may attend these after members have become convinced they are genuine and are not spies for the security police. There they can worship and begin to explore the Bible in Farsi.
Despite their caution, this is still risky. One close observer of the Iranian church said that local authorities, such as the Basiji religious police, are always eager to show their worth by finding those who break Iran’s strict rules. At Christmas finding Christians who are keen to gather is easier than usual.
A happier Christmas?
Nevertheless, when they can, underground churches will celebrate Christmas with a meal together, exchange presents, and try to sing a few carols, depending on the situation. Some have put on a Christmas concert or special event though these can be very dangerous if security forces get wind of them.
But with a change of president and six months before a nuclear agreement is concluded, this observer believes Christmas 2013 should be a happier one for Christians.
“President Rouhani would be very keen to avoid incidents [like last year’s arrests] and the nuclear negotiations are giving him some leverage with Iran’s Supreme Leader,” he explained.
Christmas by satellite
There are other isolated believers who know no other Christians, however. And Iran has many spiritually hungry seekers who want to know more about the Saviour Christians worship. For them, satellite television* fills the gap. SAT-7’s 24-hour-a-day Farsi language channel, SAT-7 PARS, is one place where they can watch programmes that explain the significance of the birth of Christ and can “join” others in worshipping him in the privacy of their homes.
SAT-7 PARS Programme Coordinator Nikoo says the channel is broadcasting a number of special Christmas films and programmes up to the start of January (6 January is the date for the Orthodox Christmas.) Nikoo and London-based presenter Anita said the PARS London and Limassol studios will are bringing a Christmas focus to their adult, youth and children’s live talk and teaching shows.
“They will explain the significance and importance of Jesus’ coming and why Jesus birth is so important for us,” said Anita. “We will have a live musical celebration on Christmas Eve and a live special with Christmas greetings on Christmas Day.”
Despite the restrictions imposed by the Iranian authorities, there are many who will celebrate Jesus’ coming, either secretly or officially. Pray for their safety and that the knowledge of Emmanuel, God with us, will be their strength and foundation.
*Research by InterMedia in 2011 indicated that SAT-7 PARS had a total audience of 1.7 million persons over 15 years of age. In addition around 5 million Iranians admitted to being aware of SAT-7 PARS. At 42 million people (46.8 per cent of the population), Iran also has the largest internet audience in the Middle East – another place where Iranians can access SAT-7 PARS and other Christian content.
Christmas in Iranian fellowships outside Iran
A growing number of Iranian fellowships now exist outside Iran, where worship may be in Farsi, Armenian, or both. In Europe, North America and the UK, they can openly invite Iranian friends to join them for Christmas services. A member of one of the London Iranian Fellowship says they will have a special programme for Christmas with a choir, children’s activities and special Christmas message. While some worship uses Persian rhythms and melodies and Farsi language versions of contemporary Christian songs, the main Christmas carols in Farsi are those translated from English such as “Joy to the world”, “What child is this?” and “Silent night”.
Traditional non-Christian festivals
Two celebrations which derive from ancient Persian and Indian beliefs – rather than Islam or Christianity – are also marked in Iran at this time of year. The festival of Yalda or Shab-e Cheleh, which originated in Indo-Persian Mithraism, occurs on the longest night (21 or 22 December) and celebrates the triumph of light over darkness. In January, Jashan-e-Sadeh is the ‘Zoroastrian midwinter’ festival. Families traditionally keep a pyre of wood burning on this day as a symbol of chasing away evil and looking forward to Norouz, the Iranian New Year, in March.