30 years since murders of Iranian pastors ‘shocked the world’

30 years since murders of Iranian pastors ‘shocked the world’

Left to right: Rev Tateos Michaelian, Rev Mehdi Dibaj, and Bishop Haik Hovsepian.

“Many people throughout the world have reacted with shock to the murders of three Protestant clergymen in recent months.”

So wrote the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran following the killings of Bishop Haik Hovsepian, Rev Mehdi Dibaj and Rev Tateos Michaelian between January and June 1994.

The three leaders were among the most senior and well-known figures of Iran’s Protestant Church, with both Bishop Hovsepian and Rev Michaelian having led the Assemblies of God denomination in Iran, and Rev Dibaj having spent nearly a decade in prison and been sentenced to death for his “apostasy”.

Indeed, it was Rev Dibaj’s release from prison, in January 1994, following the ardent advocacy efforts of his friend Bishop Hovsepian, which ultimately seemed to lay the foundations for the bloodshed that would follow.

As the Special Rapporteur, Reynaldo Galindo Pohl, noted in his October 1994 report, Bishop Hovsepian’s disappearance came just a few days after Rev Dibaj’s release and after Bishop Hovsepian “had refused to sign a document saying that the churches enjoyed all the rights guaranteed to them in the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran of 1979, and had been outspoken in his defence of Reverend Dibaj and against the latter’s death sentence”.

Here is a timeline of events:

  • On 11 January 1994, Bishop Hovsepian, in the words of the special rapporteur, “requested me to travel to the Islamic Republic of Iran to meet with Protestant and Evangelical ministers and government officials to discuss human rights matters and the situation of the religious minorities. He reportedly met with the Ministry of Islamic Guidance and presented a request that the rights of the Christian minority be protected. In response, the Ministry reportedly required all Christian denominations to sign a declaration stating that they enjoyed full constitutional rights as Christians in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Bishop Haik Hovsepian Mehr refused to sign on behalf of his denomination”.
  • On 13 January 1994, the special rapporteur wrote to the Iranian foreign minister in response to reports that Rev Dibaj had been sentenced to death and calling for “clemency … in view of the repeated assurances I have received from your Government that no person is persecuted for his faith”.
  • On 16 January 1994, Rev Dibaj was released from prison.
  • On 19 January 1994, in the words of the special rapporteur, Bishop Hovsepian “disappeared from his residence in Tehran and was reportedly taken to an agency of the Government”.
  • On 30 January 1994, Bishop Hovsepian’s family were informed of his death.
  • On 15 February 1994, the permanent representative of the Islamic Republic to Geneva sent a letter, dated 13 January, erroneously claiming Rev Dibaj had already been released and had “not been sentenced to death for his conversion to Christianity, and his offence has not come to the level of death penalty according to the penal code of the Islamic Republic of Iran”.
  • On 17 February 1994, the special rapporteur sent a letter to the representative, calling for Rev Hovsepian’s death to be “fully investigated … in view of the assurances I have received from your Government that no Iranian citizen is persecuted for his faith and that all Christians are enjoying the same rights as any other citizen in the Islamic Republic”.
  • On 21 February 1994, the representative responded that Rev Hovsepian “appeared to have been stabbed to death”; “the perpetrators have escaped with his car”; “a suspect has been arrested and is under investigation”; and the police are “searching for possible accomplices”. He promised a “full fledged investigation … in light of the importance of the case and the esteem with which the victim is held in the Christian community in Iran”.
  • On 24 June 1994, Rev Dibaj left his home in Tehran to travel to the 17th birthday party of his youngest daughter. He never arrived.
  • On 29 June 1994, Rev Michaelian left his home in Tehran. He too was never seen alive again.
  • On 2 July 1994, the son of Rev Michaelian identified his father’s body in the morgue. He had been shot several times in the head. 
  • On 5 July 1994, Iranian state media reported that the body of Rev Dibaj had been found in a forest in west Tehran, “while conducting investigations into the murder of Reverend Michaelian”.  


The special rapporteur concluded his report by stating: “It is to be hoped, and indeed urged, that the evidence … will be examined according to logical and reasonable rules of evaluation and procedure that will support credible conclusions. It should be borne in mind that inaction is incompatible with applicable international obligations.”

The findings would be “stronger and more credible”, the rapporteur added, if “UN experts were brought in to observe the proceedings… When political crimes are involved, it should be borne in mind that the perpetrators will try to protect themselves by dragging in red herrings and that incriminating others is usually part of the preparation and planning of a political crime.”

But while three women alleged to be members of an outlawed opposition group were later convicted of the murders, a 1996 report by another special rapporteur, Abdelfattah Amor, noted how the trials were viewed by many as “a travesty of justice” and how “some even went so far as to say that those women were also agents of the State, who had sacrificed themselves in the latter’s interests”.

Meanwhile, a 1994 report by TIME magazine found that “decisions to assassinate opponents at home or abroad are made at the highest level of the Iranian government: the Supreme National Security Council. The top political decision-making body is chaired by [President] Rafsanjani and includes, among others, [Minister of Intelligence] Fallahian, [Foreign Minister] Velayati and [Supreme Leader] Ali Khamenei.”

Quoting the contents of this article in part is permitted. However, no part of it may be used for any fundraising appeal, or for any publication where donations are requested.