Bishop Thomas Meram of Urmia and Patriarchal Administrator of Tehran, tells the story of a community struggling with emigration, economic crisis and Covid. The figures confirm the difficulties: three marriages, four baptisms and 30 funerals. But even in Iran, the Church uses social media as a way to reach 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 which has emptied the churches which now seek to push back the faithful, while continuing to exploit the means offered by new technologies to offer the access to celebrations on social networks. Nurture vocations to ensure generational renewal and support the pastoral care of dioceses whose seats are vacant and prelates appointed, but who have not yet been able to set foot in the country.
There are many elements of difficulty facing the Catholic community in Iran, as the Chaldean Bishop of the Urmia Archieparchy 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 “.
Bishop, 78 years old. Meram says: “Iranian Christians are few in 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 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 Shia Muslims (90%, Sunnis are somewhat more than 5%). Among the various Churches, there are Chaldeans, Armenians and Latin Rite communities, in addition to Europeans and Latin Americans.
According to the Iranian Constitution (art. 13) Christians, Zoroastrians and Jews are free to practice their religion “with respect” to the laws inspired by the Muslim faith; in addition, Christians have the right to have representatives in Parliament (Majlis).
The difficulties pervading Iranian society are also reflected in the Christian community. “Young people don’t want to get married – says the prelate – because the costs are too high. And even the few couples who marry do not have children. are ruthless: in one year, there have been “three weddings, four baptisms and 30 funerals and here the situation is better than in other regions, 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, “made the situation worse: we saw people die, the church empty, the first year was terrible. Now the situation has improved, the celebrations have resumed and during the feasts more than 200 faithful arrive, even from neighboring villages, to attend the mass with some additional precautions. Not coming to church was becoming a habit, so we [the bishop and a priest] went to homes, visited families, met them and brought them back to church.
The same goes for children and young people for whom “we promote encounters” and with whom we have remained in contact “even online during the harshest 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 encountered by the Catholic Church are reflected in the figures: in the country, there are only two Assyro-Chaldean archdioceses, an Armenian diocese and a Latin archdiocese.
In most cases there is only one priest, there are no prelates whose seat is vacant or who have not yet received permission to enter. Such is the case of Msgr. Dominique Mathieu, appointed in January 2021 Archbishop of Tehran-Isfahan of the Latins, but still awaiting entry into Iran. The June assumption of the presidency of ultra-conservative Ebrahim Raisi, who succeeded moderate Hassan Rohani, has fueled fears of renewed pressure on Christians, including evangelicals and Protestants seen as enemies of the state. .
However, in recent years Catholics have also come under pressure: last June authorities did not renew the visa of a nun, Giuseppina Berti, 75, who had spent the past 26 years in a leper colony. The nun was one of two nuns working in Isfahan, the only Catholic presence in the region which today can only count on 77-year-old Sister Fabiola Weiss. In recent years, the two missionaries have worked in hospitals caring for the sick “without making any distinction between Christians or Muslims”, trying to bring comfort to all.
The question of conversions and proselytism remains a “sensitive” subject and conversions from Islam, like the crime of apostasy, are punishable by death. Nevertheless, “relations with the authorities are good” and even with Muslims “there are no particular difficulties”. In fact, underlines the Bishop of Urmia, they themselves “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 must however take up two major challenges which remain: the flight of young people abroad and the lack of priests – and of vocations – to ensure pastoral activity.
“Young people – explains Msgr. Meram – are worried about the lack of work and economic prospects, a problem that affects all of society but is particularly hard on Christians, a small reality even if we look at it with respect. Even individual entrepreneurial initiatives are sporadic and difficult, for many the only prospect is that of emigration, of 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 if vocations are rare. We have only one young student 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 a growing number of faithful in Iran and in the diaspora in Australia, Canada, Europe”.
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