The World

Religious minorities in Iran

In this last article of the series dedicated to Iran, Gerardo Ferrara analyzes the religious minorities that can be found in this country today.

Gerardo Ferrara-February 21, 2024-Reading time: 7 minutes

An Iranian woman with her children ©OSV

In addition to the fact that the vast majority of the population is Islamic (99%, of which 90% is Shi'a and 9% Sunni), Iran has several religious minorities, although not very numerous.

Zoroastrianism and the Magi

There are about 60,000 Zoroastrians in Iran and, like the Armenian and East Syrian Christians and the Jews, they are considered "people of the book" (ahl al-kitab in Arabic), i.e. they will not be persecuted by the Muslims if they accept to live within an Islamic state while respecting certain rules (prohibition of proselytism, private profession of their faith, special and onerous taxes to be paid, etc.). In exchange (officially since 1906), each of these communities receives a seat in Parliament and respect for their rights (however, they are not considered first class citizens).

Zoroastrianism, or Mazdeism, is one of the oldest monotheistic religions in the world, founded by Zoroaster (or Zarathustra), who lived between the 11th and 7th centuries BC. Its doctrine is contained in sacred texts called Avesta. Although ancient Persia (hence Iran) is considered the home of Zoroastrianism, its influence has spread to several cultures in Central and Western Asia.

Some key principles of Zoroastrianism:

-Faith in Ahura Mazda, supreme god and creator of the cosmos. Ahura Mazda is considered a benevolent and just being. -Cosmic dualism: Ahura Mazda is in constant conflict with Angra Mainyu (or Ahriman), the force of evil.
-Faith in justice: Zoroastrians are expected to practice goodness, truth and justice, and the Earth is considered a battlefield between the forces of good and evil.
-Sacred fire: fire is considered sacred and is often used in religious rituals. However, it is not worshipped as a god, being only a symbol of purification and divine presence.
-Purification and rituals: there are practices of physical and spiritual purification through fire or water.
-Faravahar: one of the best known symbols of Zoroastrianism, it represents a winged being with a circle in the center and symbolizes duality and the choice between good and evil.

Typical of the Zoroastrian religion, especially in Antiquity, is the figure of the "magi", from the Old Persian magūsh, transliterated into Greek as màgos (μάγος, plural μάγοι).

They were a class of ancient priests and scholars, known for their great astronomical knowledge. They were considered guardians of the sacred scriptures, the Avesta, and played an important role in religious rituals and ceremonies.

In Christianity (see this article), "magi" refers to the wise men from the East (i.e., not kings) who, according to the Gospels, visited the infant Jesus in Bethlehem after his birth, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Over time, the term "magician" has also come to mean a person involved in magical or occult practices, which is quite different from its original meaning.

Despite its considerable influence on other religions, Zoroastrianism is today a minority faith, with communities scattered throughout the world, especially in Iran and India (Queen's famous Freddy Mercury was the son of Zoroastrians of Indian origin).

Manichaeism, Baha'ism, Mandeism, Yarsanism

Persia has been the cradle of various religious doctrines and movements.

In addition to Zoroastrianism, mention should be made of Manichaeism, an extinct religion founded by the Persian Mani (3rd century AD) in the Sassanid Empire. It was characterized by a dualistic cosmology, with a fierce struggle between good and evil, the former represented by light and the spiritual world and the latter by darkness and the material world. It was a cult that fused Christian and Gnostic elements and spread rapidly through the Aramaic-speaking regions, becoming, between the third and seventh centuries AD, one of the most widespread religions in the world, competing with Christianity and permeating its structures to the point of being considered a heresy.

A more recent syncretic religion, still practiced in Iran (it is the most widespread non-Islamic cult in the country), is Baha'ism, another monotheistic faith founded in the 19th century by the Persian Baha'u'llah (considered by the Baha'i faithful to be the most recent in a series of divine messengers that includes Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad). The Baha'is believe that all the great religions of the world have divine origins and promote the unity of humanity through the elimination of prejudice, discrimination and division, pacifism and world disarmament. The Baha'i World Center is located in Haifa (Israel). In Iran there are about 350,000 believers in Bahaism and this religion has been the most persecuted in the country since its foundation.

Mandaeism is also a syncretic monotheistic religion, of Gnostic origin, which fuses Manichaean and Judeo-Christian elements. His first followers settled in the Safavid Persia from the Middle East and are concentrated in Iran (estimates range from 10,000 to 60,000 Iranian Mandaeans) and Iraq. The Mandaeans consider John the Baptist the greatest of the prophets, forerunner of a divine messenger called Manda d'Hayye (Gnosis of Life), which would correspond to the "spiritual Christ", different from the "earthly Christ". They possess several sacred texts, among them the Ginza Rba ('The Great Treasure') and the Drasha d-Yahia ('Meeting of St. John the Baptist') and their doctrine is based on Gnostic dualism, which contrasts the supreme God of the world of good and light (Malka d-nura), surrounded by angels (Uthrê), of which Manda d'Hayye is the most important, and the world of evil and darkness, inhabited by demons, whose chief is Ruha, the evil spirit. The Mandaeans speak the Mandaean language, a form of Aramaic.

Finally, Yarsanism (its followers are also known as Ahl el-haqq, "people of truth" in Arabic) is another local syncretic cult, which mixes various mystical and Gnostic traditions, Islamic, Zoroastrian and ancient Kurdish elements. It is akin to Yazidism and its followers, an ethno-religious group, are concentrated in the mountains of Iranian Kurdistan. The Ahl al-haqq believe in seven main deities, the principal of which is Sultan Sahak, creator and god of truth, and in the ideals of perfection and truth, haqq, to be achieved through rituals and ceremonies based on dance, music and song.

Not being recognized as a religious minority in Iran (like the other cults mentioned in this paragraph), Yarsanism has often suffered discrimination and persecution.


Iran has a Jewish community with a millennia-long history, dating back to the Babylonian captivity in the 6th century B.C., which has gradually assimilated into the country's indigenous population.

While before the 1979 Islamic Revolution Iran had one of the largest Jewish populations in the Middle East (especially in cities such as Shiraz, Isfahan and Tehran), today there are about 20,000 Jews left in the country (still the second largest Jewish community in the Middle East after Israel), while more than 200,000 are of Iranian origin.

After the 1979 Revolution, many Jews emigrated, mainly to the United States and especially to Israel. Moshe Katsav, the eighth president of the State of Israel, was born in Iran in 1945.


Christianity has also been present in Iran for millennia (thus longer than the current state religion, Islam), although as a minority religion, unlike neighboring Armenia.

Traditionally, St. Thomas the Apostle is considered the evangelizer of Mesopotamia and Persia, followed in the mission by Addai (Thaddeus), one of the seventy disciples of Jesus and first bishop of Edessa, and his disciple Mari (famous is the Anaphora of Addai and Mari, considered one of the oldest Eucharistic formulas), already in the first century. The Church of the East, also known as the Church of Persia, the Assyrian Church or the Nestorian Church, with its own specific identity, was born between the third and fourth centuries, when it separated from Western Christianity at the Council of Ephesus (431), when the Assyrian and Persian bishops did not accept the condemnation of Nestorianism.

Nestorius, defender of this doctrine, was bishop of Constantinople a few years before the Council of Ephesus and held a thesis that, according to some, including Cyril of Alexandria, denied the consubstantiality of human and divine nature in the person of Christ, affirmed instead at Nicaea (325). Nestorius affirmed that, since there is identity of nature, substance (ousìa) and person (hypostasis) and God is immutable, human and divine substance cannot merge into one nature. For him, every substance must correspond to a person, so that in Christ there are two distinct natures, one divine and the other human, united and not hypostatically united. Therefore, for him it was not possible to affirm that Mary was the Theotokos, mother of God, a principle proclaimed at the Council of Ephesus, where, through the intervention of Cyril of Alexandria himself, the Nestorian doctrine was condemned.

The Eastern Church rejected this condemnation and did not even accept the decisions taken at the Council of Chalcedon (451), which condemned monophysitism instead.

The shahs of Persia sided with the Nestorians and granted them protection. Thus, the Assyrian-Persian Church spread to the East, reaching India and China through the Silk Road and also influencing the Islamic ritual of salàt (prayer).

The wars between Persians and Byzantines between 610 and 628 weakened the Church of Persia, which was also subjected to numerous persecutions by the last Persian Zoroastrian rulers. Nevertheless, it flourished even after the Islamic conquest (ca. 640) until at least the 12th century.

At present, the Church of the East represents the second largest Christian community in Iran (between 20,000 and 70,000, divided between the Chaldean Catholic Church and two other non-Catholic Churches (the Assyrian Church of the East and the Ancient Church of the East).

Among the approximately 300,000-370,000 Christians in the country (who have at least 600 places of worship), the largest group by far, however, is the faithful of the Armenian Apostolic Church (between 110,000 and 300,000).

Religious freedom

Iran is an Islamic republic, whose constitution establishes Islam as the official religion, while recognizing the right of Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians to profess their faith, with certain limits. Atheism is not recognized, nor are syncretic religions, which are considered pagan.

The country's laws provide for different penalties for non-Muslims than for Muslims for the same offense. In the case of adultery, for example, a Muslim man who has committed adultery with a Muslim woman receives 100 lashes, while the penalty for a non-Muslim man who has committed adultery with a Muslim woman is death.

Conversion from Islam to another religion (apostasy) is also prohibited and may be punishable by death.

In 2022, the annual report of Human Rights Activists in Iran (HRAI) listed 199 cases of religious persecution, including 140 arrests, 94 cases of police raids, 2 cases of demolition of places of worship, 39 cases of imprisonment, 51 travel bans or restrictions on freedom of movement, and 11 cases of individuals tried for their religious beliefs. Nearly two-thirds (64,63%) of the cases involved violation of the rights of Baha'i citizens, 20,84% involved Christians, 8,84% involved Yarsanists, and 4,63% involved Sunnis.

In 2023, the country scored zero out of four for religious freedom according to Freedom House and was ranked the eighth most hostile place in the world for Christians by Open Doors.

The authorGerardo Ferrara

Writer, historian and expert on Middle Eastern history, politics and culture.

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