02/16/2022, 00.00
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Catholics in Today’s Iran: the Testimony of a Chaldean Bishop

by Dario Salvi

Bishop Thomas Meram of Urmia and Patriarchal Administrator of Tehran, tells of a community coming to terms with emigration, economic crisis and Covid. The numbers confirm the difficulties: three weddings, four baptisms and 30 funerals. But even in Iran, the Church uses social media as a means of reaching out to the faithful. And in June, after three years, a group of children will be able to celebrate their first communions. 

Milan (AsiaNews) - Emigration, the search for work, the Covid-19 pandemic that has emptied churches which now seek to draw the faithful back, while continuing to exploit the means offered by new technologies to offer access to celebrations on social media. Nurturing vocations to ensure a generational turnover and support pastoral work among dioceses with vacant seats and prelates appointed, but who have not yet been able to set foot in the country.

There are many elements of difficulty faced by the Catholic community in Iran, as Chaldean bishop of the archieparchy of Urmia and patriarchal administrator of Tehran Msgr. Thomas Meram tells AsiaNews in this interview. However, there are also elements of hope that help to continue the mission such as "the first communion in June for a group of children, after three years in which it was not possible to celebrate the sacrament of the Eucharist." 

78-year-old Msgr. Meram says: “Iranian Christians are a small number and the situation has not changed in recent years. Emigration is a big problem, many try to go abroad to join family members or acquaintances who have left the country in the past, especially their children".

Official estimates report that in Iran there are about 22,000 Catholics (about 500,000 Christians) out of a total of almost 84 million inhabitants, the vast majority of whom are Shiite Muslims (90%, Sunnis are just over 5%). Among the various Churches there are Chaldeans, Armenians and communities of Latin rite, which are add to Europeans and Latin Americans.
According to the Iranian Constitution (art. 13) Christians, Zoroastrians and Jews are free to worship "with respect" for the laws inspired by the Muslim faith; furthermore, Christians have the right to have representatives in Parliament (Majlis).

The difficulties that pervade Iranian society are also reflected in the Christian community. "Young people do not want to get married - says the prelate - because the costs are too high. And even those few couples who do marry, do not have children. The numbers presented by Msgr. Meram for the archiepachia of Urmia are merciless: in one year there were "three marriages, four baptisms and 30 funerals and here the situation is better than in other parts, such as Tehran, where the cost of living is much higher. We can count on agriculture, here everyone has a house and a small plot of land to cultivate". 

In this already difficult situation, the Covid-19 pandemic, which broke out two years ago, "has worsened the situation: we have seen people die, the church emptied, the first year was terrible. Only 10 or 15 people attended services when there were so many. Now the situation has improved, the celebrations have resumed and on festive occasions more than 200 faithful arrive, even from nearby villages, to attend mass with some extra precautions. Not coming to church was becoming a habit, so we [the bishop and a priest] went to the houses, to visit the families, to meet them and bring them back to church". 

The same goes for children and young people for whom "we promote meetings" and with whom we have remained in contact "even online during the hardest phases of the pandemic". In the community "we have about sixty boys and girls, about fifteen young people and 30 university students with whom we organize weekly meetings". 
The difficulties faced by the Catholic Church are reflected in the numbers: in the country there are only two Assyrian-Chaldean archdioceses, an Armenian diocese and a Latin archdiocese.

In most cases there is only one priest. The rise to the presidency in June of the ultra-conservative Ebrahim Raisi, who succeeded the moderate Hassan Rouhani, has fuelled fears of a further squeeze on Christians, especially evangelicals and Protestants seen as enemies of the State.

However, in recent years, Catholics have also come under pressure: last June, the authorities did not renew the visa of a nun, 75-year-old Giuseppina Berti, who had spent the last 26 years in a leper colony. The nun was one of two nuns working in Isfahan, the only Catholic presence in the area that today can only count on 77-year-old Sister Fabiola Weiss. In recent years, both missionaries have worked in hospitals treating the sick "without making distinctions between Christians or Muslims," trying to bring comfort to all.

The issue of conversions and proselytism remains a "sensitive" topic and conversions from Islam, like the crime of apostasy, are liable to the death penalty. Nevertheless, "relations with the authorities are good" and even with Muslims "there are no particular difficulties". Indeed, emphasizes the bishop of Urmia, they themselves "have followed with great attention the visit of Pope Francis to Iraq last year, which recorded positive judgments and a good following in the national press."

The Church and the Catholic community, however, must address two major challenges remain: the flight of young people abroad and the lack of priests - and vocations - to ensure pastoral activity. 

“Young people - explains Msgr. Meram - are worried about the lack of work and economic prospects, an issue that affects all of society but is particularly hard for Christians, a small reality even if looked at with respect. Even individual entrepreneurial initiatives are sporadic and difficult, for many the only prospect is that of emigration, of the adventure abroad in search of a better life, even if, in practice, they are often disappointed". 

As for the clergy, "we are few in number, but we try to do our best even though vocations are scarce. We have only one young man studying at the seminary in Erbil. We hope in the future - concludes the prelate - in the meantime we use the means at our disposal, including social media [the bishop has a very active Instagram profile, where he publishes masses and celebrations, ed] to be able to reach an increasing number of faithful in Iran and in the diaspora in Australia, Canada, Europe". 


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