Iran’s Catholics welcome new archbishop after six-year hiatus

Iran’s Catholics welcome new archbishop after six-year hiatus

Fr Dominique Mathieu (centre) at his consecration service in Rome on 16 February, the feast day St Maruthas, patron saint of Iran. (Photo:

Iran’s small Catholic community finally has a new archbishop. 

Fr Dominique Mathieu, 57, was consecrated last week as archbishop of the Tehran-Isfahan archdiocese – one of the smallest in the world, with just six parishes and an estimated 2,000-6,000 members, comprised almost entirely of ethnic Assyrians and Armenians, and expatriates.

Fr Mathieu, who is from Belgium and speaks five languages, fills the role left vacant by Fr Ignazio Bedini, an Italian who led the Catholic Church in Iran for 25 years until his retirement six years ago, since when his responsibilities have been in the hands of a temporary “apostolic administrator”, Fr Jack Youssef.

The Roman Catholic Church in Iran dates back 700 years, but there have been some significant gaps over that period, including in the years immediately after the revolution, when Ayatollah Khomeini expelled Fr Bedini’s predecessor, Kevin William Barden.

According to the Catholic News Agency (CNA), Fr Mathieu said he is motivated by “keeping alive the historical Christian presence in Iran”.

But in a nod towards the challenges he will face, Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, in his commissioning speech, called on Fr Mathieu to “speak with life before words” by “being salt in that land and offer[ing] the gentle light of the Gospel”, of which “no-one should be afraid”.

As noted by the CNA, like all other churches in Iran, “Catholic churches are closely monitored with surveillance cameras by the government and religious schools are limited in what they can teach. Conversion from Islam to Christianity can be a crime meriting a sentence of more than 10 years of imprisonment.”

Some Catholics have been among the many converts arrested in recent years, though only one such case has been publicly reported: that of Anousheh Rezabakhsh, known as Veronica, and her son Soheil, known as Augustine, who were arrested in February 2017 in Orumiyeh, north-western Iran, and later sentenced to five years in prison for “acting against national security by conducting evangelistic activities”.

But while the Catholic Church, like other denominations in Iran, is repressed, the arrival of a new archbishop at least strengthens its hand, while also offering an extra voice on behalf of Iran’s persecuted Christians. 

In the past, Vatican spokespeople have been instrumental in securing the release of imprisoned Christians including Mehdi Dibaj, who had been sentenced to death for apostasy and was killed shortly after his release, and Maryam Rostampour and Marziyeh Amirizadeh, who spent nearly nine months in Tehran’s Evin Prison.

So while, as with his fellow clergymen across the spectrum of denominations, Fr Mathieu will not be able to go about his business freely, this can still be viewed as a positive development for the beleaguered Church in Iran.