by Christopher Howse
THE Catholic Church in Iran is under threat after the closing down of a Salesian school in Teheran when the government accused the priests there of being in contact with Israel. In a raid last week documents were taken away and translated and it is upon these that the charge of links with Israel are based. Militant Muslims have gone further by accusing the teachers of running a spy centre.
The Salesian school, called Andisheh, caters for 1,600 Muslim pupils and 200 Christians. It is nut clear whether the priests who run the school have been imprisoned. The Rome head of the Salesian missionary sisters who work in Teheran said that the nuns may still be under house arrest and there is some concern for their safety.
One of the Salesian priests who has been working in Teheran is Fr Francis Mulligan who once lived in England.
After last week's raid. Iranian officials announced their intention of closing all Catholic missionary schools in the country. The Salesians had ministered to westerners such as oil construction workers in Iran. There are about 40,000 Catholics in Iran, but most of them belong to the Catholic Chaldean rite, including the Archbishop of Teheran, Metropolitan Youhanmin Semaan Issayi. The Greek Metkite Archbishop Hilarion Capucci flew in to Iran recently and has been trying to defend the Salesians' reputation. Among the accusations levelled against them is that they habitually drank alcohol and spread propaganda against the Islamic revolution.
Archbishop Capucci was imprisoned by the Israelis on charges of gun-running for Palestinians and has had a good rapport with the Ayatollah Khomeini and leaders of the Iranian government, He said Mass for the American hostages when they were still held in the embassy in Teheran.
The Archbishop has told the Iranian Foreign Ministry that the documents found referred to the Salesian centre in Jerusalem. A statement from the Salesians in Rome said that their provincial house for the Middle East is in Bethlehem, on the occupied West Bank. It was set up in 1886 before Israel was established as a state.
It added: "What happened to the Salesians in Teheran resulted only from the increasingly bitter struggle between the various local factions. Some of these factions have abandoned the respect which has always been accorded the Salesians by the Islamic revolutionary authority."
It firmly rejected any suggestions of immorality and said that there had never been any trouble with other Islamic countries.
It described the school's relations with the former Shah's government as "correct and legal. nothing more." There are Salesian houses in Lebanon, Egypt, Syria and Turkey.
Catholics in Iran were massacred in 1918. This year, the Anglican bishop of Teheran was shot in an assassination attempt and his son found murdered.