THE CHURCHES OF FARS
Shiraz has two Churches; the Armenian one dedicated to Saint Mary the Virgin, which dates from 1660, and contains some attractive plaster moulding and a painted ceiling; and the Persian one, which bears the name of Saint Simon the Zealot, one of the twelve apostles and according to an ancient tradition, martyred in Persia. This church is one of the most beautiful in the country, and is wholly Persian in every detail. It contains a unique set of Persian stained glass window in intricate geometrical patterns. The construction of such windows, which are works of art, is now obsolete. A copy of the first complete translation of the New Testament into Persian, carried out in Shiraz in 1811, is kept in the church. Services are held in Persian and English and sometimes in German.
There are two other churches in Fars; the Church of the Transfiguration in Qalát, a village about 25 miles to the west of Shiraz; and the Church of the Epiphany at Bushire. The latter is also a notable example of Persian art and architecture, and all the stained glass there is hand-made.
The earliest links between Persia and Christianity are two, recorded in the Gospel.
The first is the visit of the «Wise Men from the East», (termed in the original Greek text, «Magi») to Christ in His infancy at Bethlehem, as related in the second chapter of Saint Matthew’s Gospel Herodotus states that the Magi were one of the six tribes of the Medes, and the word is originally Persian(مغ), no Greek. Of non-Jewish peoples Persians were the first to render homage to Christ after His birth. This event, which is a matter of pride to Persian Christians, is known as the Epiphany, and is commemorated by the Church on January 6th. The second link is the presence of travelers from Parthia, Media, Elam and Mesopotamia in Jerusalem on the occasion when a special gift of the Holy Spirit was bestowed on the disciples of Christ, as related in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. These places, now known as Khurásán, Kurdistán Khúzistán and ’Iráq, were parts of the Persian Empire of those days. This event is commemorated by the Church every year on Whitsunday fifty days after Easter.
So Persians were associated with the appearance of Christ in the world, and also with the empowering of the Apostles for their task of spreading the Christian Faith, which took place on the first Whitsunday.
Christianity was introduced into Persia in the first century.
As early as 104 A. D. a convert from Zoroastrianism called Paqidha, was appointed bishop in Arbela, while by the year 225, there were over twenty dioceses within the confines of the Persian territories, one of which was that of Fars. One hundred years later the bishoprie of Fars was raised to a metropolitical see, the Archbishop residing at Riwadashir, not far from the modern Bushire. This ecclesiastical province contained a number of dioceses among which were those of Estakhr, Bihshapúr, Dáráb, Fírúzábád, Kermán, Bahrain and Qatar. The Archbishop of Fars was also responsible from at least the year 330 for the supervision of the work of the Church in India set up by Persian Christians, who migrated there during the bitter persecutions that occurred during the region of Shapur II. Not until 300 years later did Indian become the seat of a Metropolitan.
Eusebius in his «Life of Constantine» state a bishop from Persia was present at the OEcumenical Church Council held at Nicæa in the year 325, when the Nicene Creed was drawn up.
Jerome (Hieronymus), the translator of the Vulgate, who resided in Jerusalem at the close of the fourth century, relates that every day he was visited by monks from Persia.
And Cosmas Indicopleustes, who traveled all through the near East between the years 520 and 525 writes that “throughout the whole land of Persia there is an infinite number of churches with bishops, and a vast multitude of Christian people.”
The earliest reference to Christianity in Fars is the inscription of Kartir Magúpat (the chief of the Magi) on the north-east side of the Ka’abeh-ye Zartush (the Cube of Zoroaster) at Naqsh-i-Rustam a few miles from Persepolis. There in Sasanian Pahlavi he relates how he had crushed Christianty in Persia, and these are the words he used,
“Nazarenes and Christians were suppressed throughout the country.” Kartir, who held the highest civil and religious post under five successive Sasanian kings, in the interest of national unity, but also through sheer intolerance, endeavoured to uproot all minority faiths. Christians must have been numerous at that time, or there would have been little point in recording on stone that they had been overthrown. The so-called Nazarenes were the indigenous Christians from the first century, and those styled Christians were refugees from the Roman Empire, who to escape persecution during the first two hundred years of the Christian era, had fled across the border into Persia, where they found security under the Parthian monarchs. The bust carved behind the fine mounted figure of Shápúr I, receiving the homage of the Roman Emperor Valerian captured at Edesssa in 260 A. D., is that of Kartir, and his inscription is dated about 290 A. D. It is worthy of note that Valerian also was bitterly opposed to the Christian Faith, and only a year before he was captured he issued an order that all the clergy in the Roman Empire should be put to death.
At many periods of Persian history Christians have suffered persecution, notably under Shápúr II (310-379), when many thousands were put to death and other emigrated. The head of the Church, known as the Catholicus, and hundreds of bishops and priests also priests suffered death during his region. The reigns of Bahrám V (420-438) and Yazdegerd II (438-457) were also periods of acute suffering for Christians, when thousands perished. It is on account of these persecutions that no church buildings have survived from these early times, for they were all razed to the ground. The Mongol rulers of Persia, such as Gházán, Uljaitú and Timurlang in the 13th and 14th centuries also treated the Christian population with great brutality.
But there have been other Persian kings, whose attitude to their Christian subjects was fair and tolerant, notably Shah Abbás, the Great (1587-1629) who brought a large number of Christians from Armenia into the country, and gave them a royal character, since when some hundreds of them have been living in Shiraz, wholly unmolested. A Garmelite Mission was also favourably received by Shah Abbás, and priests of that order served for a number of years in Isfahan and Shiraz, one of whom, Father Barnabas, died in Shiraz in 1667, and his tombstone is embedded in the wall of the Shiraz Persian Church.