Church Haik Hovsepian founded set to be sold by Iranian state

Church Haik Hovsepian founded set to be sold by Iranian state

A church of huge significance for Iranian Christians is set to be sold by an organisation headed by Iran’s Supreme Leader. 

The Assemblies of God church in Gorgan, northeast Iran, has over the years been led by some of the most well-known Iranian pastors, including three who were killed for their faith.

The church was founded by perhaps the best known of them all, Haik Hovsepian, who went on to become the head of all Assemblies of God churches in Iran, before his murder in January 1994.

Haik Hovsepian was the leader of the Gorgan church for a decade.

Bishop Haik established the Gorgan church in 1970, and led it for a decade. After him, other pastors included Hossein Soodmand, who was executed for his “apostasy” in 1990, and Mohammad Bagher Yusefi (known as “Ravanbakhsh”), who like Haik was killed in suspicious circumstances in the mid-90s. 

Another of the Iranian Church’s martyrs, Ghorban Tourani, was also for a time a member of the church in Gorgan, even after the building’s forced closure.

For more than 25 years, the church building in Gorgan has stood empty and dormant, a relic to a former time when, even in the early days of the Islamic Republic, it had seemed possible, for a short while, for Christians – even converts – to meet inside a church building. 

The first and last leaders of the Gorgan church: Haik and Takoosh Hovsepian (right), and Ravanbakhsh and wife Akhtar.

But, as with many other Christian properties in recent years, the Gorgan church has since followed a familiar pattern of forced closure, years passing, and then, when all is almost forgotten, clandestine confiscation and gradual appropriation by the Iranian state. 

And as with the former Anglican bishop of Iran’s house in Isfahan, which last year was turned into a museum, and the Sharon retreat centre in Karaj, which has also been repurposed, the Gorgan church was simply put up for sale on a state-run website – that of the Execution of Imam Khomeini’s Order (EIKO).

The price, 6.3 billion rials, is around $150,000, which EIKO declares is an “exceptionally good offer”.

Why is the Gorgan church so significant?

A young Haik Hovsepian inside the church bookshop.

The home in which the Hovsepians lived for a decade in Gorgan was next door to the Assemblies of God church. 

As Haik’s widow, Takoosh, recalled in a documentary about the church in 2017:

“The Gorgan church was built in such a way that there was only one door between our house and the church. Only one door! And it’s still like that. That’s why all of us were always together, because every time after church we would gather at our house. We would just open the door, and go to our house.”

Haik preaching during a visit back to the Gorgan church in 1990, and the church 20 years later.

In a recording of the Hovsepian family’s last visit back to the Gorgan church, in 1999, Takoosh says: “It was in this place, in the city of Gorgan, that three of our children – Rebecca, Joseph and Gilbert  – were born. And the other spiritual children that God gave us. And we’re back here after years, and since no-one’s living in the church anymore the house and church look a little different, but all the memories that we made here were very sweet. I don’t regret the time we had here. I’m very proud we served the Lord and this city for years.”

But misfortune has never been far from the Gorgan church. Even the day of its inauguration was a day of immense sadness for the Iranian Church, as Haik and Takoosh’s firstborn was killed in a car accident at just six months old.

And though as with that tragedy 52 years ago much time has since passed, for the Iranian Church that and many other tragedies will forever be part of their history, making the forced closure and final repurposing of yet another church building deeply painful, and even more significant.

The church now has a “for sale” sign outside.