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40 years since murder of first Iranian bishop’s only son

40 years since murder of first Iranian bishop’s only son

On 6 May 1980, at the age of just 24, Bahram Dehqani-Tafti, the only son of the first ethnic Iranian Anglican bishop, was ambushed as he drove home from work, and shot dead.

Bahram, whose mother Margaret was the daughter of British missionaries, was working as a teacher of economics and drama at Damavand College in Tehran, having studied at Oxford University in the UK and George Washington University in the US. 

He was returning home after lunch when his car was forced off the road and he was driven to a deserted area near Evin Prison. A 14-year-old boy, who witnessed what happened next, told police he heard somebody speaking with Bahram, then the sound of a gunshot, and then saw two people getting out of Bahram’s car and fleeing in a second vehicle.

This photo shows the four bullet holes left in the pillow on which the bishop was sleeping.

Bahram’s father, Bishop Hassan Dehqani-Tafti, had fled the country just six months earlier, having narrowly escaped an assassination attempt for his refusal to hand over access to a church fund.

Five bullets were shot at him and his wife, Margaret, in their bed, but all missed the target, save one that passed through Margaret’s hand as she attempted to protect her husband.

Just six days later, the bishop left Iran for pre-arranged meetings in Cyprus and the UK, and never returned to his home country.

Bishop Hassan was attending a church conference in Cyprus when he was called with the news of his son’s murder.

Although he could not return for the funeral, which took place at St Luke’s Anglican Church in Isfahan on 11 May 1980, a prayer written by the bishop was read out by his wife Margaret, expressing forgiveness towards their son’s assassins. You can read the full text of that prayer at the bottom of this article.

Why was Bahram targeted?

Bahram’s murder came just a year after the revolution that brought the Shia cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power. 

Bahram was not the first Christian – nor even Anglican – victim of the revolution. Just eight days after the revolution, an Anglican priest in Shiraz, Rev Arastoo Sayyah, was brutally murdered in his church office.

Rev Arastoo Sayyah was murdered just eight days after the revolution.

In the weeks and months that followed, pressure was applied on church officials, including Bishop Hassan, to hand over properties including schools, hospitals and even churches – everything that had been built over decades by missionaries, as the ayatollah sought to remove the evangelical Christian imprint from Iran.

The ayatollah said in one speech: “The missionaries, those agents of imperialism, are busy throughout the Muslim world in perverting our youth, not by converting them to their own religion, but by corrupting them. And that is the very thing imperialists are after. In Tehran itself, propaganda centres for Christianity, Zionism, and Baha’ism, have been set up for the sole purpose of luring the faithful away from the commandments of Islam. Is it not our duty to destroy all these hotbeds of danger to Islam?”

Just a few months before his death, Bahram had tried to leave Iran to attend his sister Sussanne’s wedding in the UK, but his passport was confiscated and he was told he could only leave the country if his father handed over access to a church pension fund containing enough money to cover nearly 200 school and hospital employees for the work they had done over 40 years.

Bishop Hassan later recalled the events of those days in his book, ‘The Hard Awakening’. 

“Bahram returned to Iran for us,” he wrote. “They took his passport as they couldn’t take mine, and killed him instead of me.

“If I had known what would happen, I would have returned to Iran to be killed in his place.

“I never thought they would do what they did to Bahram… Evil is deeper in a person than we can imagine.”

Bishop in exile

The Dehqani-Tafti family. (Photo: Family handout)

Bishop Hassan and his wife Margaret resettled in the UK just a few weeks after their son’s murder, with their three daughters, Shirin, Sussanne, and Guli.

Bishop Hassan continued to serve as the Anglican bishop of Iran, in exile, until his retirement in 1990. He died in 2008 and was buried in the grounds of the cathedral in the southern English city of Winchester, where they lived. His wife Margaret died eight years later and was buried next to him.

Bishop Hassan was the fourth Anglican bishop of Iran, but the first ethnic Iranian.

The bishop named the publishing house he founded in Bahram’s honour, calling it “Sohrab” – the name of the martyred son in the famous 10th century Persian poem “Shahnameh” by Ferdowsi.

Bishop Hassan’s daughter, Guli, is now a bishop in the Church of England and last year presided over the the first Persian-language service at an Anglican church in the UK.

On the anniversary of her brother’s death, she tweeted this morning that she had lit a candle in his memory and called for prayers for Iran’s “small Anglican community and all Christians in Iran today”. 

Bishop Hassan’s prayer

“O God,

We remember not only Bahram, but also his murderers;

Not because they killed him in the prime of his youth and made our hearts bleed and our tears flow,

Not because with this savage act they have brought further disgrace on the name of our country among the civilised nations of the world,

But because through their crime we now follow thy footsteps more closely in the way of sacrifice.

The terrible fire of this calamity burns up all selfishness and possessiveness in us;

Its flame reveals the depth of depravity and meanness and suspicion,

The dimension of hatred and the measure of sinfulness in human nature;

It makes obvious as never before our need to trust in God’s love as shown in the cross of Jesus and his resurrection;

Love which makes us free from hate towards our persecutors;

Love which brings patience, forbearance, courage, loyalty, humility, generosity, greatness of heart;

Love which more than ever deepens our trust in God’s final victory and his eternal designs for the Church and for the world;

Love which teaches us how to prepare ourselves to face our own day of death.”