Monday, February 27, 2012

THOUGHTS ABOUT CHRISTIAN PERSECUTION

Last week, I came across an article about an Iranian Christian pastor who had been found guilty of apostasy and sentenced to death for his unwillingness to denounce Christianity. The pastor, Youcef Nadarkhari, has been a Christian since he was a teenager and claims that he has never practiced Islam although he was born to Muslim parents. According to the Christian Post, he has been a Christian pastor for ten years and may be executed by the Iranian government for his beliefs.

This Huffington Post news alert awakened my memory of another Christian clergy-person who was nearly murdered in 1979, four years after I had returned to the U.S. after a two-year sojourn in Ahwaz, Iran. On October 26, 1979, The Rt. Rev. Hassan Dehqani-Tafti, the first Iranian born Bishop of the Episcopal Church of Iran, awakened to see the barrel of a revolver pointed at his head. He hardly hears the shots when they are fired. His wife, her left hand bleeding from a gunshot wound, pursues the fleeing attackers, and Dehqani-Tafti looks at his pillow – four small holes surround the place where his head has lain. I read this account years ago in The Hard Awakening, written by the Bishop, a book in which he also describes his experiences after the Shah was deposed. At that time church property had been confiscated, offices broken into and clergy and staff arrested. Following the attack on the Bishop, he and his wife fled to Great Britain. However, the greatest personal tragedy occurred when his son Bahram was murdered by thugs on the streets of Tehran.

I didn’t know the Bishop personally, but during my sojourn in Iran, I spent a few weeks in the summer of 1974 at a church camp in Tehran that was sponsored by the Episcopal Church in Iran and one of my roommates was the Bishop Dehqani-Tafti’s British mother-in-law, Mrs. William Thompson. She was a hardy woman who decided that the cabin in which three of us were housed was too hot, and on the first night moved her cot outdoors to sleep in the open. She spoke about her daughter marrying the Persian-born Bishop in a unique Persian/Anglican wedding and told me that he had worked with her husband, Anglican Bishop William Thompson, adding that her husband had inspired Hassan Dehqani-Tafti to become an Anglican priest.

Tehran
Our camp, built by Presbyterian missionaries, was a compound of rustic military-like barracks named “The Garden of Evangelism” and was located near muezzin calls with which we competed for listeners. Our British minister, The Rev. Phillip Saywell, played a guitar and incited us to sing loudly during the time that Muslim chants, via loudspeaker, drifted across the walls of the Garden. At the time, I had no idea that the Revolution was fomenting and that members and clergy of the Episcopal Church and Christians, in general, were an endangered species. I left Iran before the Revolution, but I remember clearly the dismay I felt when I heard that Khomeini had become the political power in this country in which I had lived and worshiped in a Christian congregation. The thought that flashed into my mind was a line from W. B. Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming:” Things fall apart/the center will not hold/mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” The center of Iranian government had collapsed, and the country that had been making great strides toward emerging from a medieval-like culture had been halted in its progress.

Bishop Hassan Dehqani-Tafti stood his ground as an advocate for Christianity and the Episcopal Church in Iran for awhile, but the assassination attempt caused him to write, “Sometimes I feel so small, so weak, so near to non-entity; and the task is so gigantic and full of awe that I am tempted to regard the whole thing as unreal. But then I hear the voice of God telling me that it is his work. The weaker you are, the stronger his power; and miracles the more possible…” Following the attempted murder, the standing committee of his Diocese finally convinced him to go into exile in Great Britain.

During his tenure as Bishop, Hassan Dehqani-Tafti brought about the reorganization of an Archbishopric in Jerusalem into the Anglican Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East and became the first Presiding Bishop of this organization. After he fled to England, he became Assistant Bishop in the Diocese of Winchester. He abrogated vengeance against Islam for the death of his son and became known as an advocate of peace and compassion. He often wrote about his vision for cultural unity and ecumenism. He’s noted for his poetry and watercolor renderings and was renowned as a scholar of Persian mystical poetry. From Bishop Dehqani-Tafti’s mother-in-law, I learned that while I worshiped in the Diocese, the Bishop and his wife traveled the roads of Iran, establishing boarding schools for boys and girls and expanding the church’s work with the blind – one of the schools was located near Ahwaz where I lived.

An interesting article about Iran’s decades of Christian persecution, published by the Assyrian International News Agency, can be found on the Net. After reading this article, I placed an order with Amazon for Bishop Dehqani-Tafti’s autobiography, The Unfolding Design of My World.
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