‘Persecution of church members started first week of Revolution’

‘Persecution of church members started first week of Revolution’

As the 45th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution approaches, Article18 uses extracts from the book of the former bishop of the Anglican Church in Iran to look back at its earliest days, and the impact upon the Church.

Rev Arastoo Sayyah was murdered in his church office just eight days after Ayatollah Khomeini came to power.

“The persecution of church members and the illegal confiscation of church properties started in the first week of the Revolution and still continues relentlessly.”

So wrote the Anglican bishop of Iran, Hassan Dehqani-Tafti, at the conclusion of his memoir, The Hard Awakening, published just two years after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power on 11 February 1979. 

By this time, the bishop had already survived an assassination attempt, been forced to leave his church and homeland, and to write a prayer for the funeral of his murdered son.

But as the exiled bishop – the first Iranian to have been appointed head of the Anglican Church in Iran – reflected on all that had past, he admitted that he had been among those who had initially “welcomed” the Revolution.

“Most had sincerely believed in freedom from [the Shah’s] dictatorship and oppression”, he wrote, explaining how many organisations had signalled their support to Khomeini. 

“I too sent a letter on behalf of the Diocese of Iran, declaring our cooperation with the armies of the Revolution and praying for the establishment of freedom and justice in the country.”

“When the Revolution came, we welcomed it,” the bishop added, “but it was not long before we found that we had exchanged one form of oppression for another even more severe.”

The bishop explained how in 1980 he wrote again to Khomeini, this time noting how at Christmas 1978, Christians had been “sent a bulletin inviting [them] to cooperate in the cause of the Revolution”, which was “considered a good omen”. 

Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran in 1979, promising to bring “freedom, equality and justice for all”.

“With hopeful hearts, we announced our solidarity with the aims of the Revolution, which had vowed to put an end to injustice, bringing freedom, equality and justice for all, especially religious minorities,” he wrote, before adding:

“It’s now over a year and a half since then and, unfortunately, what has befallen the Episcopal Church in Iran within this period has proved contrary to your promises.

“The hope for more freedom and justice has turned into disillusion, and if the evil, injustice and cruelty against us is not remedied, the shameful mark will remain forever on those responsible.”
“The Revolution shouted loudly about justice, freedom and security for all,” the bishop explained in his book. “And there were many who would have done their utmost to bring about a genuinely just, free and secure society. But the extreme fanatics took over. They became blinded to the fact – and managed to blind others to it – that justice and freedom are indivisible.

“You cannot unjustly steal property belonging to a church and claim to be just. You cannot frighten people from going to worship and call it freedom. You cannot forge false documents and slander innocent people, ambush and murder their young men, and call it freedom. If you do, your revolution has gone wrong, you yourselves have become the oppressor, even if without realising it.”

At the end of the book, the bishop lists the following incidents, all of which took place within the first 18 months of the Islamic Republic, to outline all his Church had endured:

  • 19 Feb 1979 The murder of the pastor [Rev Arastoo Sayyah] in charge of churches in the Fars Province, in his office in Shiraz.
  • 11 June 1979 – Confiscation of the Christian hospital in Isfahan, after over a century of service.
  • 12 July 1979 – Confiscation of the Christian hospital in Shiraz and intrusion on church property.
  • 12 Aug 1979 – Confiscation of the Christoffel Blind Mission, belonging to the church.
  • 19 Aug 1979 – Raiding the Bishop’s House and Diocesan Offices in Isfahan, and the looting and burning of documents and personal effects.
  • 3 Oct 1979 – Illegal confiscation of the farm for the training of the blind in Isfahan, belonging to the church.
  • 8 Oct 1979 – Disregarding the sanctity of the church, and my pointless and humiliating arrest in Isfahan.
  • 26 Oct 1979 – Attacking the Bishop’s House in Isfahan, an attempt on my life and the wounding of my wife, in our bedroom.
  • 1 May 1980 – Savage attack on Miss Jean Waddell, the 58-year-old secretary to the Diocese, and severely wounding her in Tehran.
  • 6 May 1980 – The assassination of my only son, 24-year-old Bahram Dehqani-Tafti, on the way back from his college to his mother in Tehran.
  • 5 Aug 1980 – Recalling Miss Jean Waddell from Tehran to Isfahan, and her arrest.
  • 9 Aug 1980 – The arrest of Dimitri Bellos, the Diocesan Administrator, in Tehran.
  • 9 Aug 1980 – The expelling of three women in Tehran who had been responsible for blind work in Isfahan.
  • 10 Aug 1980 – The arrest of [missionaries] Dr and Mrs Coleman in Tehran.
  • 17 Aug 1980 – The arrest of the pastor in charge of St Luke’s Church in Isfahan.
  • 20 Aug 1980 – The arrest of the pastor in charge of St Andrew’s Church in Kerman.


Bishop Dehqani-Tafti with his wife and children.

“In addition to the above-mentioned,” he added, “a large amount of money belonging to the church has been taken from banks by force, without permission of any kind; while the rents for seven schools and other church properties have not been paid for a long time.”

The bishop concluded: “Seldom in history can it have been that suspicion, misunderstanding, fanaticism and cupidity have strict an innocent group of people in the way they have struck the tiny Episcopal Church in Iran under the Islamic Revolution.

“The story of this persecution should be made known to the world, in the hope that one day justice may be done.”