- The Mission of the Portuguese Augustinians to Persia and Beyond (1602–1747) by John M. Flannery
The role and place of Christianity in Safavid Iran is a rather under-researched field. This well-written and pioneering study of the activities of the Augustinian Order in Iran, Basra, and Georgia during the seventeenth century aims partly to correct this. The study focuses on the role of the Augustinian missionaries as facilitators of contacts among Iran, the Holy See, and the Catholic states of Europe; as well as the relationship between Catholic Europe and Eastern Christianity, especially concerning ecclesiastical jurisdiction and primacy. Key is the background of constant interaction between politics and religion.
The author first sets the scene by providing background about Portuguese royal patronage (Padroado) for missionary activities in its territories, the creation of the De Propaganda Fide, the rise of the Safavid Shiite state, and the status and treatment of Christians in Iran. The next chapter deals with the founding of the Augustinian order, its activities in Portugal and later in Asia, and its early role in Iran. A discussion follows of the Augustinians’ activities in Isfahan, their relations with the Propaganda, their lack of evangelization texts, and their relations with Syrian Orthodox Christians in Isfahan. From the beginning the Augustinians had acted as diplomats for Spain/Portugal, a role they lost when Portuguese activities in Iran were reduced to insignificance after 1640. Chapter 5 deals with this period and notes that the decline in diplomatic activity coincides with a decline in missionary zeal, resulting in the apostasy of two priors of the Isfahan convent. The latter wrote anti-Christian tracts, which even today color Shiite-Christian relations. Chapter 6 discusses Augustinian activities concerning the Armenians and the failed attempt towards unification, and chapters 7 and 8 explore the order’s relations with the Mandeans, and the opening of rival Carmelite and Augustinian convents in Basra and their jurisdictional conflicts. It further examines the ill-advised attempts to transport Mandeans to Portuguese India. The presence of Augustinians at the martyrdom of Queen Ketevan in 1624 gave the order an opening to establish a mission in Georgia—the subject of chapter 9, which further analyzes the relationship among missionaries, Rome, and the Georgian Church. The study ends with chapter [End Page 153] 10 that provides an assessment of the Augustinian experience in Iran and suggests further research topics.
This study greatly enhances our knowledge of the array of missionary activities in Safavid Iran, in this case by the Augustinians; it would be helpful if this author or another one would do the same for the other three orders active in Iran. However, there are also some questions to be raised. Given that the Augustinians established themselves first on Hormuz, it is odd that this activity merits only one page, for it would have been interesting to learn, for example, what missionary lessons were learned there. Although the author rightly contrasts the Shah Abbas’s respect for Christianity with the harsh criticism by the Augustinians toward Islam, he misunderstands the reason for the shah’s attitude. Islam recognizes Judaism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism as legitimate religions, something Christianity does not. The author also seems to read too much into Shah Abbas’s willingness to appoint a khalifeh with jurisdiction over all Christian denominations in his realm as a nascent attempt to create a Safavid millet system. However, the fact that Abbas did not consider doing the same for the Jews and Zorostrians negates such a notion. As the author points out, Abbas wanted an anti-Ottoman league with the Catholic states in Europe, and he was quite willing to throw them a bone that did not cost him anything. Finally, the author should have placed the discussion of the attempt of the creation of a joint anti-Ottoman League in historical context. This was, after all, a European—even a papal—initiative dating from the mid-1450s.