Home > Archives > 06/07 - 2006 > Small openings in Teheran
from issue no. 06/07 - 2006

Atomic power doesn’t come into it. Pierre Bürcher, auxiliary bishop of Lausanne

Small openings in Teheran

Travel diary of a Catholic bishop on a mission to Iran

by Giovanni Cubeddu

Teheran. Above, a glimpse of the bell tower of a church and a mural portrait of the Ayatollah Khomeini

Teheran. Above, a glimpse of the bell tower of a church and a mural portrait of the Ayatollah Khomeini

«There could be patient dialogue, and therefore fruitful, with Teheran. The premises for it exist, provided that other events, that is to say the querelle on the civilian use of atomic power, don’t end by highlighting shortcomings, and suffocating instead what good exists, and hence instrumentalizing the Christians». Pierre Bürcher is auxiliary bishop in Lausanne in Switzerland, in charge of the “Islam” working group of the Swiss Bishops’ Conference and experienced in inter-religious dialogue. The good of which he speaks is what has been achieved so far in the co-existence between the religious minorities and the very large Shiite majority in Iran. Co-existence based on the Constitution, something not to be underestimated in the country of the ayatollahs. The shortcomings mentioned by Bürcher concern the practical distance between the freedom of worship already operating (for the three permitted religions, that is Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians) and the total religious freedom that the Holy See desires. The Christians – for the most part belonging to the Apostolic Armenian Church, and then the Catholic Syro-Chaldeans, Orthodox Syro-Chaldeans, Protestants, Latins and Armeno-Catholics – represent in total about one in a thousand of the population. The Latins, who suffered most from the advent of Khomeinism, including the expulsion of religious personnel, have gradually seen their status improve, from the time of Rafsanjani’s government onwards. But today? Monsignor Bürcher’s story is that of a new eyewitness who, by the invitation of the Iranians, in April led a delegation from his country to Teheran for the first time, on a religious and not political mission, that also included a Reformed pastor.
«It all began in 2004,» explains Monsignor Bürcher, «with a visit to Switzerland by the then Iranian president Khatami, whom I met also officially as representative of our Bishops’ Conference. Out of a proposal made by Khatami came the idea of visiting Iran. But the Iranians were ahead of us». In Teheran, in fact, a body called ICRO exists “Islamic Cultures and Relations Organization”, the official body for inter-religious dialogue, which in September 2005 had sent to Switzerland a delegation of ayatollahs invited to some days of dialogue with the Catholic bishops of Zurich, Einsiedeln, Berne, Lausanne and Geneva. «Not least because it was their intention to gain a better understanding of the religious situation of the Moslems in Switzerland», Bürcher stresses, «of whom there are about three hundred thousand, the vast majority of whom are not Shiite but Sunni, and they come essentially from the countries of former Yugoslavia and from Turkey. We explained to the Iranians that the “Islam” working group of the Swiss Bishops’ Conference among other things helps the priests and laity to deal with such questions as, for example, Islam-Christian marriage, or religious teaching in schools. The outcome of those days spent together was genuinely comforting».
The mission of the Swiss delegation to Teheran took place very recently instead, from 17 to 24 April, with a welcoming ceremony through which the authorities wanted to give it public importance: «The president of the ICRO, Ayatollah Araqi, and former president Khatami welcomed us in very fraternal fashion», Bürcher recalls. There was agreement also on the contents, given that the Iranian had accepted that the topic of the meetings, something of a burning issue, be the rights of religions and minorities. «As Catholic bishops we had also set conditions for our stay in Iran: that we could meet the three religious minorities recognized by the state, Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians, that we could celebrate mass every day and that there be close contact with the local Catholic and Christian hierarchy. And our demands were satisfied», says Bürcher, «we were granted even more than expected». In fact, «we also participated in a function of the Syro-Chaldean community of Teheran, during which a girl took perpetual vows. It’s a community concerned above all with settling and encouraging young people. The Christian population in Iran is altogether a minority, but it’s alive, it has vocations. We are well aware of the great worries in Europe about priestly and religious vocations, but it was more beautiful to see vocations blossoming there, in a so-called difficult context: a religious confessed to me that when things were going fairly well with the Teheran government they practically had no vocations. Now instead, when the situation is more difficult, they have them…». Then followed meetings with the Armenian Orthodox, and the Latins. There were difficulties as regarded the Jewish communities. Why particularly with them, we ask? «It was Shavuot, one of the most important Jewish feasts, and it was a problem organizing meetings on that occasion».
Armenian faithful at Holy Mass

Armenian faithful at Holy Mass

After Teheran the delegation went to Qom. Years ago, among the many aspiring young mullahs who gathered, as they do today, at the famous university of religious studies, there was one whom the whole world would come to know, the leader of the Islamic revolution, the Imam Khomeini. But in Qom there is also the cemetery of the Iranian combatants in the Iran-Iraq war. «We had the chance of speaking with those in charge of training at the university and of visiting the famous library», says Bürcher; «of course the situation was fairly delicate, but I asked the Moslem responsible how many Christians there are in Qom. The first answer was they had no idea, the second was yes, maybe there was two Christians, but nobody knew where to find them…».
The next stage was Isphahan, whose architectural treasures have been declared part of the world heritage by UNESCO, but which is better known at the moment as the site of the Bushehr nuclear reactor… It wasn’t that, however, that drew our group of prelates. Bürcher continues: «There, too, we met the Catholic community, we celebrated the Eucharist with them and we discussed the life of the Church in Iran. In Isphahan there is the particularity that catechesis is taught not only by male and female religious, but also in the family. And this for quite a few years, differently than in Teheran. We welcomed the occasion to visit the celebrated church devoted to Holy Mary and the historical museum of the Armenian Orthodox. Another novelty for us: the visit to the Temple of Fire, in the Zoroastrian community».
We wonder whether anybody had brought up the subject of the influence of Teheran on the Shiites who govern in Iraq today. «Not only did we discuss it, we were also able to meet some Iraqis, both the Syro-Chaldean bishop of Teheran, Monsignor Ramzi, originally from the region of Mosul, and various Iraqi faithful from his diocese. I would like to stress that among those who had to emigrate because of the tragedy in Iraq there are some who sought refuge in Iran, and others who had first emigrated elsewhere, for example to Lebanon, are now members of the Christian community in Teheran. For these Christians the immediate problem is that of finding work. And that is why, we were told by a religious in Teheran, practically all their suitcases packed, ready to leave Iran: not only because of the practical limitation on religious freedom, but precisely because of unemployment …».
At the end of the visit the official communiqué of the Swiss Bishops’ delegation spoke of a «positive balance-sheet» and of «concretely achieved priorities» in the dialogue with the Christian minorities and the Iranian Moslem representatives. Even if that doesn’t alter the need, according to Bürcher, for genuine freedom of worship to be finally granted, «another positive fact emerges, for example. In the Charter of Civil and Political Rights of the United Nations, agreed in 1966, freedom of worship was affirmed, Iran subscribed in 1976 and has deliberately kept its signature on it. Even if the situation relies on middle governments officials who don’t apply the principles, the proper weight should be given to the seal set on such documents by the Teheran leaders». The recipe, then, is the patience to ask and always keep in working order the channels of communication with the Iranian authorities. And it is not true that, albeit slowly, things are not shifting inside the country. Bishop Bürcher explains: «When the Iranian delegation came to Switzerland in 2005, it included a Christian, a Member of Parliament, whom we met again now in Teheran. He is one of the representatives of the Christian minority, and he described to us all the effort being made to help towards full recognition of the minorities, and his firm intention of getting specific laws approved for the different situations. He is one of the six Christians parliamentarians elected, but because the Parliament consists of two hundred and ninety members, time and the search for allies is always necessary… ».
Teheran. Below, Monsignor Bürcher, in the center of the photo, during a pause with the “Islam” working group

Teheran. Below, Monsignor Bürcher, in the center of the photo, during a pause with the “Islam” working group

The visit to Iran and relations with the ICRO arose during the Khatami government, but since August 2005 the president has been Ahmadinejad, and the change of direction has been profound: «We did not meet the new president,» Bürcher makes clear, «but a few days after, when I was in Doha, in Qatar, for the annual and well-respected Conference on Inter-religious Dialogue organized by the Emir, I was able to ask an Iranian present for his assessment of the current president, in terms of the religions within the country. The answer was: “The president is fraternal and kind to the minorities”. I don’t know what else to add, but in any case that, too, is evidence. And one sees that the problem of freedom of worship of which we have spoken is very much of the moment».
Finally, what concretely remains of such a particular mission? Answer: «Iran is in the news today for anything but these matters. Allowing an episcopal delegation to form wide contacts with the variegated Iranian Christian hierarchy is a demonstration of intelligence, and of how to appreciate a new approach. The local bishops themselves were very surprised that it went as it did, it was one of the first times that a Christian delegation coming from abroad made concrete contact with them and helped them go ahead. With the exception in particular of missions coming from Rome, delegations like ours are usually “catapulted”, with hasty programs and few meetings with the local Church. Instead we were allowed to do everything – in the best possible way – in communion with the Iranian Christians,so that they really felt touched by our solidarity and our prayers, even in the modest part that our effort can play so that the Christian teaching and mission in Iran may become ever more public. But this inter-religious dialogue», our interlocutor concludes, «is ever more essential for establishing justice and peace and softening the tones of the clash. Otherwise there will be no lasting peace in the world. From Teheran I came back with the concrete feeling that there may be small openings».

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