Witness Statements

Mariet Mikaelian

Mariet Mikaelian

Mariet Mikaelian (left), with her father Tateos, mother Juliet, sister Helen and brother Galo

Mariet Mikaelian was speaking to Article18 on the 25th anniversary of the murder of her father, Tateos, an Iranian-Armenian church leader and translator of over 60 Christian books into Persian.

Please tell me about your father. What are your memories of him? What was he like? 

My father was not only a father for me; he was a friend, and he was my teacher. He was my mentor. Whatever I know from the Bible… He was one of those parents who intentionally tried to teach me the Bible and tried to be a Christian example for me, and he was living what he was preaching, and that was very precious for me. 

Tateos Mikaelian was 62 when he was killed

I was one of the close observers of his life, and when I was listening to his sermons I couldn’t feel that he was preaching but not living it. He was living whatever he was preaching.

He was a man of prayer. I always remember that during the hard times he was staying awake, praying; trusting God in everything. And he was a man of the Word of God. I remember waking up in the morning and seeing him reading the Bible. Or during the day, always the Bible was next to where he used to sit. He was a man of the Bible, and he knew the Bible really well. Reading the Bible and being fed from the Bible was part of his life.

Something else I always admired in him was his trust in God. He was completely trusting him. He believed that nothing will happen without God’s permission: this was his belief.

I remember when Iraq was bombing Tehran, we were so afraid. We were going downstairs to take refuge, because our house was on the second floor. And he was very peacefully in his room, and we were saying, “Aren’t you afraid?” And he was saying, “No, nothing will happen without God’s permission.” He was not faking it; he was living it. He knew that God is in control. So I really admired his faith. He literally believed that God is in control, and he was trusting him wholeheartedly.

He was saying, “If you want to know if a believer is a true believer, just check how he spends his time and money.” And he was giving 50 per cent of his income for the work of God. He was saying, “Tithes are for the Jews. They were stingy, so they were paying 10 per cent. We are Christians, under grace; we are not under law. So it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pay; we should pay more.”

So half of his salary was going for helping others, and he was so compassionate. During the last 15 years, he was the pastor of an Armenian evangelical church, and when he saw a young couple struggling finding houses, because the rents were going high, so he started a fund and started giving them loans, without interest. So he was giving from his own salary, and he was talking to others who could help, and through this fund more than 30 couples got houses. So he was passionate in helping people; not just talking, telling them God is with you. He was trying to be the hand of God in helping people. 

When he died, many, many people came to us and told us: “Take this money; this is what he gave us when we were in need. We know that your family is now in a difficult position. Take this bag; this is what he gave us.” 

We didn’t even know who he had helped. He was happy when he saw he could help someone. I remember I was checking his Bible when he passed away and I found a small note in his Bible. It was Galatians 6:9, and he wrote a date – it was almost 10 years before his death – and it said: “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” And he said, “God gave me this verse and told me to use the rest of my life living based on this verse.”

And when I read that, I realised that he did that with all his life. He lived helping whoever he could, and we didn’t even know about it, but we heard about it when he passed away.

He had a degree in law, but he was 18 years old when he had a personal encounter with Christ, and he decided not to practise law but to serve the Lord. From that day on he decided to give his life to Christ and to live for him. So he didn’t practice law; he started serving in a school which belonged to a church. He became the principal there, and then he became the Executive Director of the Bible society, and Executive Director of the Synod of Presbyterian Churches in Iran, and for the last 15 years he was the pastor of St. John’s Armenian evangelical church in Tehran.

Please tell me some more about his ministry. I hear he was a prolific translator? 

One of his characteristics was that he was using his time wisely, and again when he passed away I was going through his calendar and I realised that he had plans for every hour of his day. 

A selection of the books that Tateos Mikaelian translated

Every week was planned. The weeks after he passed away he had planned – hours for translations, hours for Bible study, hours for visitations.

He was a dedicated translator; he translated more than 60 books. And last time, when I was there, brother Edward [Hovsepian] was telling me that “I asked him what makes you eager to translate all these books into Persian? And he told me that, ‘Edward, now we have very few Persian-speaking Christians, but I know God will have plenty in a few years. I know that this is God’s plan for Iran, so I’m not translating it for now – for Christians we have now. I know that God has a plan for Iran; I know that the doors will be opened for Christ, and then we will have a famine, so I’m translating for those days when people will be hungry to read and there will be no resources’.” 

So he was dedicated; he was preaching not only verbally, but translation was his way of communicating God’s love and care, and he was translating theological books, philosophical books, devotionals.

Please can you tell me about the day you heard about his death? What were you doing? What are your memories of that day?

I was pregnant, and it was the day that my daughter was supposed to be born. It was a Wednesday, and we were getting ready. My mum came to our house. We were getting ready for the baby because I had to go to the hospital the next day. The doctor told me to come on Thursday for a check-up, and so my mum came and helped me. And my dad was so excited, because it was his first grandchild, and he helped me buy lots of stuff for my daughter. 

… My mum called me at night – it was Wednesday night, 10 o’clock. She called us and told us, “Dad didn’t come back.” And it was so unusual because wherever he used to go he used to let us know: “I’m going to this place, I will be back at this time.” But on that day, when Mum was at our house, he left the house without any notice, and he didn’t come back. 

Tateos Mikaelian (right) speaks while his fellow church leader, Haik Hovsepian, sits behind him

So it was six months after Haik [Hovespian]’s death, and we were terrified; we knew something is not right. He had received lots of threats, so we were waiting for that day. But you know, when the day comes, you don’t want to believe it.

So we went to his house; we started looking around. We went to all the hospitals around our area; we went to the police station, with a picture. And then on Thursday we wrote letters to different ministries – even to the president. And usually they do it at the weekends, so that everywhere is closed and you don’t have access to any place. So for two days we just went to different places. Nothing happened; no news. 

My husband went to the doctor and told him the situation. He told him to bring me to the hospital. 

I went to the hospital on Sunday. My mum and my husband took me to the hospital on Sunday, and when they went back, the government people came to church telling them that he is dead. And this is because my brother found him on Saturday, in the morgue. So they had to tell us that he’s dead. 

They were not expecting us to find his body, and they didn’t return Haik’s body for several days, and they even buried him, but with my father, my brother found him in the morgue. When they found him in the morgue, so they had no other choice but letting us know that, “Yeah, we found him; he was killed.” 

They told my brother not to let anyone know; they wanted to bring the news. So they came on Sunday and gave the news to my mum and the church. 

It was the day my daughter was born. I didn’t know about it till a few days later. The doctor told them not to tell me, so I heard the news two days later. And at that time, every minute I was just praying for him; I was thinking, “He is in one of the prisons, and they are torturing him.” I didn’t know that he was already dead. 

So it was my brother who saw him, and, I haven’t asked him, but I guess his face was not even recognisable, if they shot him from the back. And even after that they didn’t give us the body for many, many days. I don’t remember how many days – maybe ten days.

And when it was his funeral, there were lots of secret-service people and police. They were checking every move; they didn’t let us open the casket; they were afraid of things happening. But there were lots of people there. It was packed. People from everywhere were there, because he was known as one of the heads of the Church in Iran.

What did you make of the regime’s story of events – that he’d been killed by the opposition MKO? Did it ever convince you, or other Christians? 

No! How can you be convinced when they just killed six, seven people in the same year? After the funeral, my brother and a few other colleagues from the church were called to the Ministry of Intelligence. They called all the pastors and told them: “Come for a briefing. We want to let you know what happened. We have some facts.” And the person who was doing the briefing and was telling them: “These ladies killed him; these are the ones that are working against the Islamic Republic; we will prosecute them.” The person who was conducting this briefing and explaining that “everything is under control now we have them arrested” … he committed suicide in the prison a few years later. 

So he was one of the agents who was orchestrating all these things, and I don’t know what happened, but after the killing of the writers, the Persian writers, maybe somewhere he dropped the ball and he was arrested, and he committed suicide in the prison… Suicide? I don’t know; I mean they killed him also.

After that, they sent us some notices for the court. They called me, my mum and sister (my brother left the country) to the court, and told us: “This is the day we want to … I don’t remember if it was one or three ladies; I don’t remember even their faces … but this was the court for them; “come and just be a witness, tell that they have killed your dad. We will have a sentence for them”.

We literally told them we don’t believe that they did it, and we don’t want your justice – we’re asking for God’s justice for the true killer.

So we went to the court and they called us one by one: “Do you accept that these people killed him? And do you want us to sentence them?” So, we knew that they didn’t do it. I knew that they were themselves victims, because back in those days they used to have these mujahideens cooperate with them, promising them that they would have a lesser sentence.

So I told them that I know that God is the best judge, so I give everything to Him; let him judge the one who killed my dad. So we basically said, “We don’t have anything against them; we don’t want them to be prosecuted.” And they were angry, because they wanted us to just say “thank you for arresting them; thank you for doing this court for us, bringing justice”. And we literally told them we don’t believe that they did it, and we don’t want your justice – we’re asking for God’s justice for the true killer. 

So they took us several times to that court, and one thing that was interesting: one day when we were in that office, by chance I saw one of the notes that was in front of the one who was asking questions of us – as if we had killed him – interrogating us … and I saw the date of death, and there was a discrepancy. The letter of the day he was dead, it was telling Wednesday, but what he had there, he had another day. So I told him, “What is the difference? At least let us know when he was killed; we want to know if he suffered, or he was killed the same day.” And he said, “Oh, don’t pay attention to this date; it is a typo.” 

So it was a scenario they didn’t think good enough about the details; they just wanted to show a good image of the Islamic Republic. They killed the ones that they wanted, but they wanted to create a scenario that “it is our enemies that are doing it”. And they gave us a hard time; they called us to the court several times, as if we were the criminals. They were forcing us to wear the chador, entering that room. So I was filled with anger, and all I was praying was that God’s justice be done.

I’ve been told that your father was quite outspoken?

I wish I was a brave as he was. He was not afraid of anything, or anyone; he was just speaking the truth. He was not thinking about his benefits, or his wellbeing; he was just speaking the truth. I remember that it was the fasting month, Ramadan, and in the TV they announced, one of the mullahs was speaking to Muslims, and he said that: “During this month, especially be aware of dogs, pigs and non-Muslims; don’t touch them. They’re unclean.” So the next day, [my father] went to the Ministry of Islamic Guidance, and he opened the door and started shouting: “Are we the pig? Are we equal to pigs and dogs? You are calling us pigs and dogs! You are calling us unclean, and then you want us to tell the world that you are respecting us and that human rights is observed here.” 

So he went there protesting; he went to the ones in charge, protesting about our situation, telling them, “This is what you call us!” He confronted them. And I remember there was a meeting: they called the pastors “ambassadors for Christmas”. Again, they tried to show a good image; maybe they were trying to show the ambassadors “we respect your Christmas, we have a party for you”. And after that party, the Catholic bishop came to our house for dinner with my dad, and it is him who told me the story. He said: “So all of us were there sitting – all Christians, all pastors, ambassadors of Christian countries – and they went and started the day with verses from the Quran, and some talks about Islam and how Islam is the best religion. And we were all there, angry. No-one said anything. And it was your dad, with the Bible, who stood and said, ‘I have a few words I need to say.’ So he went there, he stood in front of everybody and he said, ‘This is for us. We are Christians. I believe if you read from the Quran, we have the right to read from our Bible also. And if we believed that Islam is the best religion, we would all be Muslims now.’ 

So the Catholic priest was telling, “This is what we were thinking, but no-one dared to say it. It was your dad who went there and read from the Bible, and said that we don’t believe that Islam is the final and the best religion.” 

And I also remember we were living next to a school – the church he was pastoring had a school next to it – but after the revolution, the principal and the teachers were sent by the government. It belonged to the church, Armenian kids were attending there, but they did not let us have [Christian] principal and teachers. And one morning, they used to start the day with the Lord’s prayer, singing the Lord’s prayer, and after the Lord’s prayer the principal, who was a very fanatic Muslim, stood in front of the children and said, you have to repeat “Allahu akbar“, which is what the Muslims say – “God is greater”. And then you have to say “Down with the US; down with Israel,” the same slogan they always say. And so my dad went down and stopped the children, and told them, “Don’t repeat any of them.” And the children loved him, so they followed him; they stopped repeating those Allahu akbar things. And he said, “These are Christians; you can’t force them to say your slogans.” And it became a huge thing. The principal went and told the authorities that my dad had cursed [Ayatollah] Khomeini. And they wanted to take revenge.

God protected him from many, many different things, and I remember I was in 8th, 9th grade, after the revolution … I was going to an Armenian school but we had one hour for Christianity – we were studying Christianity – but after the revolution they said, “We have to write a book for you, as a book of religion.” So all the Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians had to read that book in school, instead of learning about their own religion. So my dad took all those books, read them through – he was a scholar. Even until his last day, he was reading philosophy. He read all those books and he came up with a letter just mentioning which parts are against our Bible and our beliefs and sent it to the Ministry of Education: “Our kids cannot study this book because this is against our faith.” 

And this was one of his protests. None of the other Christians did this, but he just went through the book and said, “You cannot brainwash our kids with these books.” And he went through the lines, mentioning “these are the parts that are against our faith; you can’t force this and make our kids read it”. So he was brave, and he was outspoken, and he was a scholar. The letters he was writing, they were pieces of art – very good Persian. 

He was the first one to speak when there was injustice against Christians, against minorities, and I remember he told me – he went even to the Hague, in one of his trips he went to the Hague, explaining the situation of Christians there, and he told them, “The picture they [the regime] try to give you is not the right picture. This is the true picture: as Christians we are treated as second-order citizens; we can’t have governmental jobs; we can’t be hired as teachers.” They were not hiring Christians as teachers because they were the ones who were teaching the Muslims. And he told them, “They are considering us unclean; they don’t let us print Bibles; they don’t let us renovate or build churches.” So he told them about all the details, and he was frustrated when they told him, “We know the situation, but we’re not going to change our policy because of one or two Christians who are living there.”

So it was his frustration. He was so outspoken. His last trip, to Cyprus, again in one meeting he talked about all the details. It was after Haik’s assassination, and he even told, “Now they have started killing our clergy.” 

When he came back, the person who went with him told him, “I’m 100 per cent sure that they will kill you… If they forget everything else you have done, just for this last thing you did.” And it happened a few months later.

Did your family think he was killed because of what he was saying?

Not just that. He was very open; he was giving Bibles, he was preaching to Muslims. The last recorded sermon we have from him is when he went to the Pentecostal church, and it was in Farsi, on Acts 18:9, the verse: “Do not be afraid, keep on speaking, do not be silent, for I am with you, because I have many people in this city.” And this was his belief; he believed that God had many people in that country, and he really believed many Iranians will come to Christ, and it was his mission to take the Word to wherever he could go. 

The Mikaelian family were prevented from opening the coffin at the funeral.

I remember one of the missionaries told me that after the revolution he was in the synod office, he was working there, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards came to arrest these two missionaries to take them to Evin, which is one of the scariest prisons. And the missionary said [my father] told the guards, ‘I am coming with you, I will not let them go without me. I have to go with them.’ “So he came with us to the prison and he talked to them, explained that the church has been a positive influence in this country,” and the missionary was saying, “While they were keeping us in a room, I don’t know what he told them but they just released us and told us, ‘Go back’.”

No-one would want to go near even to Evin, but he was the first one who was jumping to help others. I know another brother, they came to arrest him at night, and his mum just called my dad. My dad and mum went there, and again it was the Islamic Revolutionary Guards; he convinced them not to take him at night; he brought him to our house. And the next day, when they went and talked, it was clear that it was just one group taking revenge on him. 

So he saved many people. He was brave – going and taking people even from Evin, taking them out. He spoke against them. 

It was many years that we knew that it would happen [he would be killed]. I was working in an embassy, and again they called to ask some questions, and they told me: “You know what, we are watching your dad. Tell him to be careful. We are sending people there just to check him. He gives Bibles very freely and he talks about Christianity, convinces people to become Christians. Tell him to be careful.”

So we knew it is coming, we knew that they are planning it, because he was one of the brains of the Christian community there, so they thought if they take him, they will get rid of many problems.

It was interesting that when I told him that “they’re telling me that they’re watching you; be careful”, he just told me this verse – Acts 18:9: “Do not be afraid, just speak, because I am with you.” And he just told me the story of Peter and the apostles, who said, “We must obey God, rather than man.” Even several times, when the Ministry called him and told him, “Be careful, we’re watching you. Stop evangelising, stop giving Bibles; stop protecting Christians,” this was his response: “We must obey God, rather than you. I am the servant of my God, my Christ, my Saviour. Not you.” 

So he was wholeheartedly serving and following and trusting Him. And when my mum was telling him, “What will happen to us when they kill you? Be careful. Don’t do this, don’t do that”, he used to tell us, “God is your father, he will take care of you.” 

And God took care of us for the rest of our lives; he was right … but we lost him.

Is there any way you can express yours and your family’s reaction when you found he had been killed? 

For me, the first few days was like hell, because I didn’t know he had been killed – I was thinking they are torturing him – so I was just praying that God will send him back, safe and sound, but it didn’t happen. And I don’t know – during those days I really believed that it was God’s will. I always remember him saying that “nothing will happen without God’s permission”, and even up to this day I don’t know why, but like Tertullian said, “the blood of martyrs became the seed”. After those days, we see the Christian Church growing. 

I remember those days like dark days, but what kept us going was the Christians around us – the visitations. People used to be in our house for maybe one month, or even more, they were coming; visiting us, supporting us, and one of the things that really encouraged us was the letters and cards we were receiving from outside. You know in those days you feel you are helpless; they can do whatever they want with you; you don’t have anyone protecting you. But we had hundreds, thousands of letters and cards – from all churches, from embassies, from countries; from the World Alliance of Churches – all the big organisations… Just telling us that they are praying for us, and they were protesting. 

Mariet Mikaelian (centre) flanked by her parents and siblings

For several months there were articles written in newspapers – inside the country and outside the country. Even his death became a way that God used it … Many Muslims were asking, “What happened? Why did they kill him?” Even the Muslims knew they killed him, so many people were talking about it. The support we received from the letters, and the cards from outside – the brothers and sisters – we felt that “we are not alone”. Because they want to make you feel that you are a minority; “this is the end of Christianity; we are the majority; we are the best religion, and now this is your end”. But receiving those cards and letters just gave us a different perspective. It reframed our way of thinking. It helped us see that “no, God is in control. The big churches are there; they are persecuting us here, we are just a few here, but God’s Church is out there and they are supporting us”. And those cards, those letters, they were what kept us going. And of course you have this anger, you have this rage, and you think that they just killed one person for his faith, for what he was thinking and believing and living, so it is really hard to accept that he was killed not because he was a criminal, not because he did something wrong; just because he believed in Christ.

My daughter was born the same day. She was the joy of our life during those days. God gives gifts. I mean, look at the timing! She was the one who was helping us be happy in those dark days. My mum used to just hug her. Now, after several years, because we all were wearing black, she kept asking, “Why did you wear black when I was born? Everybody … I see all the pictures, they’re all in black.” It was several years later that I explained that “You were born the same day they killed him.” She was the joy of our life – God took something but gave us something else to be happy over.

I’m interested in what happened to the church he was pastoring in the days and years that followed

It was the Sunday when the authorities came and announced the news, so it was the day of worship, but the congregation … everybody was shocked, everybody was crying. The worship service turned into a mourning service. They just came to our house, they started crying, everybody was in shock. 

Hundreds of people attended Tateos Mikaelian’s funeral

For several days the believers used to come to our house, because for several days – from Wednesday to Sunday – we were all praying for his release, we were praying for his safe return. 

But he was so organised. When he was killed, everything was organised, and it was like a wheel that continued rolling. He was a great mentor; he had trained two people to become pastors after him, so they were ready. He was really a man of God; he was one of those who was thinking ahead of time. He prepared those people to become pastors, and they were the ones who took charge. One of them was my husband.

It was interesting that he left but everything he had organised for those who survived to continue. So my husband and the other colleague took over the church, and it was a shock for the church and it took several years maybe to get back. He was not only a leader in the church; he was kind of a leader for the whole evangelical community. After Haik he was the head of the pastors – they had a meeting together, all the evangelical pastors; he was a person who even the Orthodox priest, the Catholics, used to come. So it was a position that couldn’t be filled easily, so it was a huge loss to the Church.

Is his church still going now?

Yes, and the same pastor who he trained is still pastoring. We left the country but he – Sergey Sharbadian – is still pastoring the church. He and his wife were two of the people he mentored personally. They are great teachers, and he mentored them. He not only taught them in seminary – we had a Bible school there – he was working with them on a personal level, mentoring them. So they are the ones continuing the work.

And there haven’t been problems for them?

Of course there are problems with them now. Sergey used to also pastor the Persian-speaking church but they closed that church. They told him, “You can’t have any contact with any Persian-speaking believer.” So he’s now restricted; he can’t have any Persian-speaker in his house; he has to just speak in that church. 

And then they didn’t let them have worship meetings on Friday, because Sunday is a working day, so my dad started worship services on Friday so that families can come. Now they don’t let them have worship services on Friday. They tell them “Friday is our day; you can have worship on Sunday”. So in this way not many people can come, because Sunday is a working day. And whatever activity they want to have, everything they have to report and get permission. So they are very restricted; they are very much under pressure, very tired, but they still keep going.

And what about you and your family? When did you leave and what led you to move? 

My brother was the one who found the body and he was really in a very bad situation. He was filled with anger. So he left the country. The head of the Armenian Missionary Association invited him to the United States, so he came here two or three months later. 

But the rest of us were there. My sister left one year later as a refugee, came to the States. My mum and I stayed there for two or three years, and then my husband decided to do a Masters of Divinity in Lebanon because there were no seminaries in Iran – we had just one small Bible school. So together we went to Lebanon for four years; together we studied for our Masters of Divinity there, and we came back because we promised that we would serve in that church. So we came back and served there for seven years. 

It was really hard for me. Every call late at night used to make me really terrified – I still don’t like the calls late at night because I still have that trauma inside me.

But it was getting harder and harder for me, having had that experience. Every time my husband used to leave the house I was really worried … because back then we didn’t even have cellphones, so I had to just wait and cry until he comes back. 

It was really hard for me. Every call late at night used to make me really terrified – I still don’t like the calls late at night because I still have that trauma inside me – so it was becoming really … because none of my family members were there, so we decided to come here. 

He just saw how hard it was for me to keep serving in that situation, so we decided to come here. One of the churches invited us and he came here as a pastor. It was a hard decision; I was thinking ‘I’m betraying the church my father used to serve’, but I guess it was – now when I look back I think it was a good decision, because many of the church members left after we did and now we have a group here – also the ones that came from the same church – and we have a wider opportunity to serve here. So I don’t know, we just left. It was because of me.

We came to the United States in August 2007. It is almost 12 years ago. So we served there for 13 years.

Do you think people who are becoming Christians in Iran today know about the sacrifices of people like your father?

I don’t know. I guess everybody knows Haik’s story, but I’m not sure if they know my dad’s story. We didn’t talk much about him, we didn’t just go publicising about it. The people who know us closely know the story, but we didn’t just go around telling the story. 

When I came to America I continued my studies. I got my PhD from Biola [University]. There, many different people knowing my story appreciated it and they asked me to go and tell my story in different occasions, different Biola events. I guess when people know me personally and ask about the story I am willing to share. 

But I guess many people don’t even know about my father and his story. I don’t know; he has been a blessing for me. 

When I came to America I realised that, it is unfortunate but many pastors just serve for money, and having him as my example kept me going. For him, money was nothing; doing God’s will was his priority. So I don’t know; I think we were not faithful in spreading his story. We just kept it for ourselves.

As the daughter of a martyr, do you have a message for the Church in Iran today and also for the wider Church?

I can tell them that God is faithful when you go through the dark times. You learn the greatest lessons when you suffer. It is interesting that the most precious lessons you learn under pressure, and during those years we really felt that God is next to us; God was our father; God was our helper. We felt His presence; we felt His support. It is hard, but it is during those days that you have closer connection with God. 

I’m just thankful to my God and I just want to tell that he is faithful through it all, and he is our refuge, and at the right time he sends the right people to support you, to take care of you. He is the one who knows your needs; he is the one who will take care of your needs. What we need to do is just trust and live based on what he wants us to live. It is hard; it is not easy. It is easier to preach than to live, but [my father] lived the same way – he was ready to give his life for us. My dad was saying “it is not for everybody to become a martyr; it is a privilege”. So not all of us will become martyrs, but God wants our faithfulness, and He is always faithful through it all.

Recently you and your mother were presented with a copy of a new Persian translation of the Bible, a collaborative effort known as the Mikaelian Project in your father’s honour?

Yes, because he was asked to contribute with them in the translation. He was a great translator. Sometimes when you read Persian translations – because they translate literally, word for word – you don’t get the meaning. But he was a very fluent translator. If you would read his translations, you would feel that “this book was written in Persian”. 

Tateos Mikaelian’s widow, Juliet, receives a copy of the new Persian Bible from Elam founder Sam Yeghnazar

He had a very great knowledge of Persians. He knew the Persian poetry. He knew the Quran very well. So that’s why he could have debates with Muslims.

And during his last years, many, many muslims were coming to him, and even some clergy from Qom, who were studying Islamics. I remember some of them coming to him, and he was going through Galatians with them; he was teaching them Galatians, because they had to take one course in Christianity – something like that – and he was trying to tell them that Christianity is based on grace, not doing things which you are supposed to do.

So he knew the Quran, so he could talk to them. He knew their language; he knew their faith, so he was very efficient in talking to them. And people liked him – the Muslims.

Mondays was his open day – they used to come to him. He had an open-door policy, and they used to come and talk to him.

Was the presentation of the new Bible very significant for you and your mother?

I was also involved with that translation, and you know you feel still people remember him and you get encouraged, because he was truly a scholar – all he did was writing, reading, preaching. Till his last day he was reading books of philosophy, thinking, “What will the next trend be in philosophy?” 

So when you feel that people still appreciate what he did, and remember him, of course you feel supported, you feel encouraged. Sam Yeghnazar [Director of Elam Ministries, which published the new translation] was one of those who worked with him in the Bible Society, and my mother felt really supported and encouraged, because sometimes, after all these years, she thinks everybody has forgotten him – and her. So this was really an encouraging event for her.

‘My brother found him … in the morgue’ – 25 years since Tateos Mikaelian’s murder

‘My brother found him … in the morgue’ – 25 years since Tateos Mikaelian’s murder

L to R: Tateos Mikaelian with his wife Juliet, daughters Mariet and Helen, and son Galo

Mariet Mikaelian gave birth to her firstborn, Anna, on the day it was confirmed her father had been murdered.

Tateos Mikaelian, who led an Armenian evangelical church in Tehran and had been an outspoken critic of the Iranian regime’s mistreatment of Christians, had gone missing four days earlier, and Mariet feared the worst.

Tateos Mikaelian speaks, with fellow church leader Haik Hovsepian behind him 

“It was six months after Haik [Hovsepian]’s death, and we were terrified, reflects Mariet on the 25th anniversary of her father’s death. “We knew something is not right. He had received lots of threats, so we were waiting for that day. But you know, when the day comes, you don’t want to believe it.”

It was Mariet’s mother, Juliet, who first broke the news that her father was missing.

“My mum called me at night – it was Wednesday night, 10 o’clock,” Mariet recalls. “She called us and told us, ‘Dad didn’t come back.’ And it was so unusual because wherever he used to go, he used to let us know: ‘I’m going to this place; I will be back at this time.’ But on that day, when Mum was at our house, he left the house without any notice, and he didn’t come back.”

Over the next few days, the family searched everywhere for Tateos. They went to all the hospitals in the area, and even took a photo of him to the local police station. But it was Mariet’s brother, Galo, who eventually found him – in a morgue.

“They [the Iranian regime] were not expecting us to find his body,” Mariet says. “They didn’t return Haik’s body for several days, and they even buried him, but with my father, my brother found him in the morgue. So they had no other choice but letting us know that, ‘Yeah, we found him; he was killed.’”

But if the discovery of Tateos’ body was not part of the plan, there was surgical precision in the regime’s handling of the events of the following days.

“They told my brother not to let anyone know; they wanted to bring the news,” Mariet recalls. “So they came on Sunday and gave the news to my mum and the church.

Hundreds attended Tateos Mikaelian’s funeral

“… And when it was his funeral, there were lots of secret-service people and police. They were checking every move. They didn’t let us open the casket; they were afraid of things happening. But there were lots of people there. It was packed. People from everywhere were there, because he was known as one of the heads of the Church in Iran.”

After the funeral, Mariet’s brother and a few of her father’s colleagues from the church were called to the Ministry of Intelligence, where they were told that the police had identified three women – members of the opposition MKO – as the killers.

Mariet, her mother and sister were then called to act as witnesses in the prosecution of the three ladies, though none of them believed they were the perpetrators. 

“They called us one by one: ‘Do you accept that these people killed him? And do you want us to sentence them?’” Mariet recalls. “But, we knew that they didn’t do it. I knew that they were themselves victims, because back in those days they used to have these mujahideens cooperate with them, promising them that they would have a lesser sentence.

“So I told them that I know that God is the best judge, so I give everything to Him; let him judge the one who killed my dad.”

Tateos Mikaelian translated over 60 Christian books into Persian

Tateos Mikaelian, who was 62 when he died, was not only a pastor; he had also translated over 60 Christian books into Persian, had taken over from Haik as the acting chairman of the Council of Protestant Ministers in Iran, and previously served as both executive secretary of the country’s Presbyterian Synod and general secretary of the Bible Society before it was forcibly closed in 1990.

But it was not only his church activities that had brought him to the attention of the authorities; Mariet reels off a list of examples of times her father spoke out on behalf of Iran’s Christians.

“He was so outspoken,” she says. “His last trip, to Cyprus, in one meeting he talked about all the details [of persecution]. It was after Haik’s assassination, and he even told, ‘Now they have started killing our clergy’. When he came back, the person who went with him told him, ‘I’m 100 per cent sure that they will kill you… If they forget everything else you have done, just for this last thing you did.’ And it happened a few months later.”

Mariet says the first few days after her father went missing were “like hell, because I didn’t know he had been killed: I was thinking they are torturing him. So I was just praying that God will send him back, safe and sound, but it didn’t happen”. 

But she says that in those “dark days”, what kept the family going was the support of fellow Christians, who she says were encamped in the family home for “maybe one month”.

Mariet also speaks of the “hundreds, maybe thousands” of letters and cards the family received from Christians around the world.

St. John’s Presbyterian Church is now being led by a couple Tateos Mikaelian mentored

“You know, in those days you feel you are helpless; they [the regime] can do whatever they want with you; you don’t have anyone protecting you… Because they want to make you feel that you are a minority: ‘this is the end of Christianity; we are the majority; we are the best religion, and now this is your end’. But receiving those cards and letters just gave us a different perspective. It reframed our way of thinking. It helped us see that ‘no, God is in control’.”

“It was getting harder and harder for me, having had that experience,” Mariet says. “Every time my husband used to leave the house I was really worried … because back then we didn’t even have cellphones, so I had to just wait and cry until he comes back. 

Mariet and her husband, Hendrik, served in her father’s church for several years after his death, but in the end she says the pain was just too strong, and in 2007 they relocated to the United States, where her husband pastors a church in California.

“It was really hard for me. Every call late at night used to make me really terrified – I still don’t like the calls late at night because I still have that trauma inside me.

“It was a hard decision; I was thinking, ‘I’m betraying the church my father used to serve’, but now, when I look back, I think it was a good decision.”

Tateos Mikaelian’s widow, Juliet, receives a copy of the new Persian Bible from Elam founder Sam Yeghnazar

Mariet says that her father’s church, St. John’s, is still going strong – under the leadership of a couple her father mentored – despite ongoing challenges such as being forced to halt Persian-language services and ordered to hold services only on Sundays, a working day in Iran.

In 2014, Mariet’s mother, Juliet, was presented with a copy of a newly translated Persian Bible, the “New Millennium Version”, a collaborative effort known as the Mikaelian Project in her father’s honour.

“He was truly a scholar,” Mariet says. “All he did was writing, reading, preaching. Till his last day, he was reading books of philosophy, thinking: ‘what will the next trend be in philosophy?’ 

“… When you feel that people still appreciate what he did, and remember him, of course you feel supported, you feel encouraged. My mother felt really supported and encouraged, because sometimes, after all these years, she thinks everybody has forgotten him, and her.”

25 years since murder of church leader and Bible translator Tateos Mikaelian

25 years since murder of church leader and Bible translator Tateos Mikaelian

Tomorrow will be the 25th anniversary of the forced disappearance of Tateos Mikaelian, an outspoken Iranian Armenian church leader and Bible translator who was found dead three days after going missing.

His son identified his body, which according to one report was riddled with bullets, on 2 July, 1994. Tateos was 62.

The Iranian regime claimed an opposition group had been behind the killing, but there was little doubt among the Christian community that Tateos had been killed because of his evangelical activities and public criticism of the regime. He had received several anonymous death threats.

Haik Hovsepian disappeared on 19 January 1994. His family was notified of his death 11 days later. He was found with multiple stab wounds to his chest.

Tateos’ murder came just five months after that of fellow Iranian Armenian church leader Haik Hovsepian, himself an outspoken critic of the government.

Indeed, some believed that Tateos laid the foundations for his own death when he told a foreign journalist at Haik’s funeral that he believed the Iranian regime had been behind the killing.

Tateos was even more outspoken at a Christian conference in Cyprus a month before his murder, when he said Iranian Christians were treated like second-class citizens and “unclean”; “encouraged and even indirectly forced to become Muslim”; not allowed to build churches or publish Scriptures; and that their leaders were killed. He also compared the “religious dictatorship” in Iran to the Middle Ages, and called on the World Council of Churches and United Nations to put pressure on the Iranian regime to ensure there was religious freedom in Iran.

When he sat down, a colleague reportedly told him he had signed his own death sentence.

Tateos Mikaelian refused to agree to stop evangelising to Muslims and preventing them from attending his St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Tehran, which held services in Persian.

Previously, in the 1980s, he had complained to the Ministry of Islamic Guidance after a Muslim cleric said on TV that Christians, like pigs and dogs, were “najess” – unclean.

He had also criticised restrictions on Christians in an interview with a French magazine, after which he was summoned by the authorities and accused of “counter-revolutionary activities”, which he denied.

And he refused to agree to stop evangelising to Muslims and preventing them from attending his St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Tehran, which held services in Persian.

Tateos was a brilliant scholar, responsible for the translation of over 60 Christian books into Persian, as well as the Good News version of the New Testament.

He was acting chairman of the Council of Protestant Ministers in Iran, and had also served as Executive Secretary of the country’s Presbyterian Synod and General Secretary of the Bible Society before it was forcibly closed in 1990 – something else he protested about.

25 years since extrajudicial killing of ‘apostate’ Mehdi Dibaj

25 years since extrajudicial killing of ‘apostate’ Mehdi Dibaj

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the forced disappearance of Mehdi Dibaj, a Christian convert who had been released from nine years in prison just five months earlier.

Mehdi’s body was found days later in a park in a suburb of Tehran, with multiple stab wounds to his chest. 

Before his release from prison in January 1994, Mehdi was facing the death sentence for apostasy. However, he was released when news of his sentencing garnered international attention, thanks to the efforts of his fellow pastor Haik Hovsepian.

Haik was killed just three days after Mehdi’s release, prompting Mehdi to say at his funeral: “I should have died, not Brother Haik.” 

Mehdi Dibaj (second left) pictured with his two sons and Haik Hovsepian (right)

Mehdi became a Christian in 1953 at the age of just 14. When his parents found out, he was forced to leave home and moved to Tehran, where he worked at a Christian bookshop and became involved with the Assemblies of God (AoG) denomination.

He undertook theological training in India, Lebanon and Switzerland, and moved to Afghanistan as a missionary, translating the Gospel of Mark into Dari.

When he was refused re-entry to Afghanistan, he settled in the conservative Iranian city of Babol, near the Caspian Sea, where he taught English at the university and worked with an evangelical radio station.

But in 1983 he was arrested and detained for 68 days after being accused of slandering the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, in a letter.

He was eventually released after submitting title deeds to a plot of land belonging to the AoG in the nearby city of Sari. But when a year later he returned to ask for the title deeds to be returned, Mehdi was detained, then held for the next nine years.

During his detention he was beaten, subjected to mock executions, and spent two years in solitary confinement in a tiny cell.

The letter he was alleged to have written was eventually proved a forgery, but the authorities by this stage had changed their focus to his conversion to Christianity, and in December 1993 he was sentenced to death for apostasy.

Mehdi responded by smuggling out of prison the court’s judgment against him, alongside his final letter to the judge and a moving written testimony.

These documents arrived at the door of Haik Hovsepian, who passed them on to friends abroad, where they were translated into English. A translation of his testimony was published in full by the UK’s Times newspaper.

The publication of these documents led to an international outcry, and when the new Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, told the Vatican’s Ambassador to Iran that the rumours were false, only to be presented with a translation of the court document, he had no choice but to order Mehdi’s release, claiming a local judge had made a mistake.

But three days later Haik disappeared and his body was later found with 27 stab wounds.

Five months on, his friend Mehdi was on his way to his youngest daughter’s 17th birthday party, when he too disappeared. 

His body was later found in a park. He had been stabbed repeatedly in the heart.

Iran Ministry of Intelligence and EIKO closes Assyrian Presbyterian church

Iran Ministry of Intelligence and EIKO closes Assyrian Presbyterian church

This case study was used as part of a UK government-funded report into the persecution of Christians worldwide.

Case referenced by

Article18, Assyrian International News Agency,  Iranwire, Radio Farda, World Watch Monitor, Voice of the Martyrs Canada

Case Summary

On 9 May 2019, the Ministry of Intelligence together with the Execution of Imam Khomeini’s Order (EIKO) forcibly closed down the Assyrian Presbyterian church of Tabriz, in the northwest of Iran. The intelligence agents changed all the locks, destroyed the cross from the church tower, and ordered the church warden to leave the premises immediately, while they installed CCTV and other monitoring systems in and around the premises.

Case in full

On 9 May 2019, “a large number” of agents from the Ministry of Intelligence (MOIS) and EIKO raided and forcibly shut down the Assyrian Presbyterian church of Tabriz, in the northwest of Iran. The intelligence agents changed all the locks, destroyed the cross from the church tower, and ordered the church warden to leave the premises immediately while they installed CCTV and other monitoring systems in and around the premises.

The MOIS raid was not unexpected. Prior to the incident, during Christmas 2018, Armenian and Assyrian church leaders from other churches in the country were prevented from visiting the church and conducting a joint worship service. According to Article18’s inside country source, the church members anticipated such an incident and had been fearful since Christmas 2018.4

Furthermore, in 2011, the church was raided and “confiscated” by the order of the Revolutionary Court under Judge Hassan Babaei. Nevertheless, the church members were able to continue using the building to conduct their services in the Assyrian language until 9 May 2019. The church had been banned from using the Farsi language for their worship services for more than 30 years.

Legal background and case analysis

The church belongs to the Assyrian Presbytery and has been listed and officially recognised as a National Heritage site with 100 years of history. The church was confiscated by the order of the Revolutionary Court under Judge Hassan Babaei in 2011; however, the church members were able to continue using the building to hold their services until 9 May 2019 and the intervention of EIKO and MOIS agents, who were responsible for the raid and the closing down of the church. Both institutions are under the direct supervision of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Neither of them has provided the church with any clear explanation or reason for the raid and the closing down of the church.

On 25 May, the Assyrian representative to the Parliament, Yonathan Betkolia, wrote an open letter to President Rouhani urging him to re-open the church and reinstall the cross on the church tower. There has not yet been any response to his letter from the authorities.

The majority of churches owned by Protestant denominations have been closed down or banned from using the Farsi language for their worship services, as was also the case of the Presbyterian church of Tabriz. Furthermore, in most cases where churches have been closed, the government has not been able to legally repurpose them, especially if the building is listed. As Mansour Borji, Advocacy Director of Article 18, stated: “Churches typically remain as empty buildings, until they turn into ruins, before being bulldozed, such as was the case with the Episcopal church in Kerman”.In some cases, after the confiscation of the church, the government may allow the church to look after the listed building but ban them from holding any church services, except occasional prayers under strict control of the authorities – for example, in the case of the Episcopal church of Shiraz.

Iran’s constitution provides for and protects religious freedom for Christians (Assyrians and Armenians), Zoroastrians and Jews. Armenian and Assyrian Christians have been relatively free to practise their faith. However, Protestant churches that attracted Muslims or that accepted Muslim- background Christians or held services in the Farsi language have been forced to close or stop their services in Farsi and reject their Muslim-background members. If a church or church leader did not follow their orders, they could face severe punishment. One such example is the case of Pastor Victor Bet-Tamraz, an Assyrian pastor, who refused to stop his Farsi-speaking services in his church in Shahr-Ara, Tehran. The Ministry of Intelligence temporarily closed his church. After MOIS warnings, the church leadership dismissed Pastor Bet-Tamraz and stopped the Farsi-language services. MOIS then reopened the church. However, the story did not end here. On 26 December 2016 plain-clothed security officers raided Pastor Victor Bet-Tamraz’s house and arrested him. Later, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison, charged with “actions against national security”.

USCIRF in its 2019 Annual Report states that religious freedom conditions in Iran are moving in a“negative direction”; the government “systematically” targets Christians; they repeatedly raid churches and house churches, harass, detain and imprison Christians; Muslim converts to Christianity continue to face “severe persecution”; many have been sentenced to prison for holding private Bible study gatherings in their homes. In 2018, at least 171 Christians were arrested, as Article18 noted in its annual report. “114 Christians were arrested in Iran during the first week of December in 2018.”

Views of local Christians

The members of the church of Tabriz are in a state of shock, though they had foreseen such a situation since Christmas 2018 when the state did not allow pastors from other churches to visit their church. The locals also reported that the intelligence agents made it clear that Assyrian Protestant Christians were no longer allowed to practise their faith in the building. The local Christians believe that the closing down of the church is part of the government’s agenda to close down all Protestant churches in the country.

Diplomatic involvement

There has not yet been much diplomatic involvement in this case, however USCIRF in a tweet on 24 May said: “USCIRF is deeply concerned by reports that an Assyrian Presbyterian church in Iran was forcibly closed earlier this month.”

Rouhani’s legal adviser questions legality of Tabriz church closure and minority teacher ban

Rouhani’s legal adviser questions legality of Tabriz church closure and minority teacher ban

Aliakbar Gorji Azandaryani (http://www.lvp.ir/)

A senior legal adviser to the Iranian president has publicly questioned the legality of the recent closure of a church and banning of religious-minority teachers from nursery schools.

Aliakbar Gorji Azandaryani’s comments were published in two separate articles on a government website over the past two days.

Firstly, yesterday, he asked the governor of East Azerbaijan Province to look into why the Assyrian church in Tabriz was forcibly closed last month and its cross removed from the church’s high tower.

And today he also questioned the legality of the move by Iran’s Social Welfare Organisation, also last month, to ban religious-minority teachers from working in nursery schools.

Of the Tabriz church closure, Mr. Azandaryani said he had “serious doubts about the legality”, referring to Articles 9, 19, 20, 26, 36 and particularly 13 of Iran’s constitution, which states that religious minorities are recognised and free to perform their religious ceremonies.

“Therefore such an order is a clear violation of the constitution and the rights of the recognised religious minority,” he said.

He added that the move also went against several of the provisions of Iran’s Charter of Citizens’ Rights, which President Rouhani launched in 2016, and called upon the governor of West Azerbaijan Province to “do all he can to find out about the details of this case, including the background reasons for the seizure of the church and the authority that issued the order” – in this case EIKO (Execution of Imam Khomeini’s Order), presided over by the Supreme Leader himself.

Mr. Azandaryani gave the minority-teacher ban similarly short shrift, also referencing several articles of both the Iranian Constitution and Charter of Citizens’ Rights in saying he considered it illegal.

He particularly made note of the constitution providing all citizens with the right to have “employment of their own choice, without prejudice or discrimination”.

Therefore, he said “it is expected that the statement will be withdrawn and the public made aware of actions taken” against those responsible.

Article18’s Advocacy Director, Mansour Borji, welcomed the statements but noted that they “don’t carry much weight unless backed by the president himself”, and that, in the case of the Tabriz church, “the ruling has been made by the revolutionary court in favour of EIKO, which is overseen by the Supreme Leader, so even the president may not be able to do much”.

But Borji said that it was still “important that a senior legal adviser has recognised the illegality of these actions”. 

“Now, officials from both legislative and executive bodies have raised serious objections to the recent moves against the rights of religious minorities,” he noted.

‘Systemic and institutionalised’ persecution of Christians in Iran

‘Systemic and institutionalised’ persecution of Christians in Iran

Iran’s continued violations of religious freedom are highlighted in the UK Foreign Office’s latest global Human Rights and Democracy report, published yesterday.

The comprehensive annual report lists Iran among 29 “human rights priority countries”, referencing the “systemic and institutional” persecution of Christians and “economic persecution” of Baha’is.

“Despite notionally benefiting from constitutional recognition and protection, Christians continued to be persecuted in a systemic and institutionalised manner [in 2018],” it states, highlighting the sentencing of four converts to ten years in prison and the arrest of 114 Christians in just one month.

“The authorities continued to pursue the economic persecution of Baha’i, including through shop closures, and by the denial of mainstream education,” the report adds.

It says the UK will “continue to hold Iran to account for its human rights record” in 2019, by supporting human rights resolutions on Iran at the UN Human Rights Council and UN General Assembly, and the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran.

In the preface to the report, the UK’s Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, says he was “deeply disturbed to learn that 215 millions Christians faced persecution [worldwide] in 2018”, according to a study by Christian charity Open Doors.

In December, Mr. Hunt called for an independent review of the Foreign Office’s efforts to help persecuted Christians worldwide, the preliminary findings of which were published last month.

That report noted that in Iran the situation for Christians and other minorities had “reached an alarming stage” and that “though most cases involve converts, indigenous Christians such as Pastor Victor [Bet-Tamraz], an Assyrian Christian, with his wife Shamiram Issavi and their son, [Ramil], have also been targeted and imprisoned”.

Article18’s inaugural annual report, released in January, noted that at least 14 Christians remained in prison at the end of 2018, detained on spurious charges related to their faith or religious activity.

Religious minority teachers banned from working in nursery schools

Religious minority teachers banned from working in nursery schools

(IRNA)

The Iranian government has banned members of religious minorities from teaching in nursery schools, except in special schools where all children already belong to that minority.

The directive, passed by Iran’s Social Welfare Organisation on 27 May, is the latest in a long line of discriminatory and restrictive practices against religious minorities, explains Article18’s Kiaa Aalipour. 

“This is a shame, really a shame, and another example of the Iranian regime putting pressure on religious minorities inside the country,” he says.

“The regime continues to violate international law on freedom of religion or belief, and despite the Iranian government’s assertions, religious minorities in Iran face systematic state persecution.

“And this is far from the first example of something like this. There are lots of legalised discriminations in the civil code of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and religious minorities are facing these things daily – for example: employment restrictions, marriage restrictions, unequal treatment by the courts, and the inability to inherit property from a Muslim… Even discrimination in child adoption.”

The move has drawn criticism from many people, including the Zoroastrian representative to the parliament, who said it went against the constitution.

In response to the mounting criticism, an Iranian official clarified that members of religious minorities are able to take some classes, such as music or gymnastics – but they are not allowed to be class teachers.

It was already effectively impossible for members of religious minorities to teach older children in Iran, explains Aalipour, because “to become a teacher there are specific criteria to meet, including belief in Islam and the office of the Supreme Leader”.

Even in the special schools for children of religious minorities, Aalipour notes that “in recent years, in many of those schools, the heads have been replaced by Muslims, appointed by the Iranian regime”.