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bishop Hassan Dehqani Tafti

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bishop Hassan Dehqani Tafti

Nov-09-2000 at 00:13 AM (UTC+3 Nineveh, Assyria)

Before the Islamic revolution of 1979, the number of Christians in Iran, excluding foreigners, was perhaps one percent of the population, represented in the Armenians and Assyrians. The role of the Protestant mission specially that of the British and American in the last two and how it related to the political realm can be illustrated by means of the example of Iran.

In 1979, an Iranian Protestant pastor, a convert from Islam, was murdered. In the fall of the same year the Anglican bishop, Hassan Dehqani Tafti and his wife, himself a convert from Islam, escaped an attempt of assassination in Isfahan. His secretary, Jean Waddel, was wounded on May 1, 1980 in an attack. Later on May 24, 1980 the son of the bishop, Bachram Dehqani Tafti was murdered after being kidnapped in Tehran.

In order to understand the nature of the problem of the mission in the Middle East in general and of the Presbyterian and Anglican Protestant mission to Persia in particular, it is important to reflect on the example of this bishop and his own analysis of the situation of his church in Iran. He now lives outside Iran and will not be able to return for the foreseeable future.

The church of Hassan Tafti was the fruit of British Anglican mission work and was hindered for a long time in becoming a true indigenous church. When the first Synod of this church gathered in Yezd in 1933, all the delegates, with but one exception, were foreigners. It was not until 1963 that the leadership of this church passed into Iranian hands through the appointment of Hassan Dehqani Tafti. In the same year he was consecrated bishop in Jerusalem, to be crowned later in Isfahan.

Eleven years later, in 1972, this bishop would be introduced to the Shah during the festivities surrounding the 2500th anniversary of the Persian monarchy. At the time this was seen as a sign that the Protestant churches had become part of the religious life of Iran. But was that an accurate assessment?

Some thirty years ago, Hassan Tafti, who had a Moslem father and a Christian mother, wrote a book about his conversion to the Christian faith entitled Design of My World. This title was inspired by one of the largest squares in the city of Isfahan, where he resided for years as bishop. His desire was to provide his readers with the pattern of the life and peace he had found through belief in Jesus Christ. Near the end of the book he remarks:
The heart of Christianity is the Cross of Jesus Christ, but this cross is often hidden in the clouds of hatred, suspicion, hardness of heart and pride, which prevail in the world among the sons of men. To dispel these clouds, and disclose the real cross, calls for more than preaching and teaching. It demands the bearing of the cross in daily life. This is to go on loving when love seems impossible, and working when no result yet appears.

Bishop Hassan was forced to live the words, which he wrote at that time, and they have since become prophetic for his church as well. In March 1981, he published another book entitled The Hard Awakening. In which he attempted with great honesty to weight not only his own life, but also and especially that of his church and of the Protestant mission in Iran. The title of his book was derived from a poem by the well-known Persian poet Shams al-Din Muhammad Hafiz (ca. 1325 ca. 1390) entitled Loves Awakening:
Love seemed at first as an easy thing,
But Ah! The hard awakening.

Hassan Tafti relates how to be a Moslem and to be an Iranian are one and the same in Persia. A Christian may be Iranian, ethnically speaking, but because of his religion, he is foreigneran Assyrian or Armenian. He relates an incident that is symbolic of the foreign character of the church in the Persian context. It concerns an incident from the life of an English missionary, Henry Martyn (1781-1812), a celebrated figure in the history of the Protestant missions. On June 9, 1811 this missionary arrived in Persia and began work in Shiraz. When he wanted to present his translation of the New Testament in Persian, which he had completed in the beginning of 1812, to the Persian prince Fathali, however, he was required to do so through the British ambassador at the court of the Shah.

That meant that from the very beginning Christianity in its modern form in Iran was identified with a foreign government. When later, in the 19th century, American and British missionaries entered that nation, they originally worked among the Assyrians and Armenians, where they were pioneers in medical care and established hospitals and schools. From this mission activity grew the beginning of an indigenous Protestant church.

Hassan Tafti went on in his book to reflect on the history of the previous thirty years (1950-1980). He related how in 1940, at the dictatorial command of Reza Shah, the government confiscated the important mission schools and colleges and gave the Christian hospital in Isfahan six months to shut down. They had no choice but to obey. But then the government of Mossaddegh was toppled in 1953, and the Shah, who had gone into exile, returned. On the following day the department of health gave permission to the hospital to receive patients again. It was also the opinion of Tafti that the seeds that had been sown during the reign of Mossaddegh were reaped under Ayatollah Khomeini. After the fall of Mossaddegh, the English Anglican bishops were allowed to return from exile. Looking back 30 years after these events, Hassan Tafti doubted whether the bishops did the right thing when they took the Anglican hospital back under their own control rather than allowing the hospital to be nationalized, as the American Presbyterian had done. They should have seen the handwriting on the wall.

In a period of one hundred years, Dehqani Tafti related, the Anglican Church had baptized three thousand people, men, women and children mostly converts from Islam. Nevertheless, Bishop Hassan confessed that at the age of eighteen, when he considered becoming a priest, he was disturbed by the involvement of foreigners in the local church. When he discussed this problem with the British Anglican bishop, the advice he received was sympathetic, but logical:
If you really have a call from God to go and work separately for Christ like a dervish, he told me, of course you are free to do so. But what will you do when you start making converts? Will you start a new church on your own, or will you join with the church that already exists? I saw then that the first kind of church would not really be part of the Body of Christ because it would be an isolated, exclusive national body. The second option involved problems, but was the only true way to follow. I realized that the concept of a multi-national and multi-racial Christian community was too precious to be sacrificed, and I have upheld the idea ever since. I knew that one day we might have to pay heavily for this, and indeed we have done so; but is it possible to achieve anything sublime without sacrifice?

It is beyond dispute that Bishop Hassan Dehqani Tafti and his church have had to pay dearly. In fact, the Western mission in general and the mission to Iran in particular have had to face the disturbing question of whether they, in addition to the undoubtedly impressive work that has been carried out by so many devoted Christians, have not also contributed to the alienation of converts from their own backgrounds, making it difficult for Christians to continue to feel at home in their own countries, not only did they begin to see themselves as aliens but also felt pressure, both internal and external, to leave their country.

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Assyria \ã-'sir-é-ä\ n (1998)   1:  an ancient empire of Ashur   2:  a democratic state in Bet-Nahren, Assyria (northern Iraq, northwestern Iran, southeastern Turkey and eastern Syria.)   3:  a democratic state that fosters the social and political rights to all of its inhabitants irrespective of their religion, race, or gender   4:  a democratic state that believes in the freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture in faithfulness to the principles of the United Nations Charter — Atour synonym

Ethnicity, Religion, Language
» Israeli, Jewish, Hebrew
» Assyrian, Christian, Aramaic
» Saudi Arabian, Muslim, Arabic
Assyrian \ã-'sir-é-an\ adj or n (1998)   1:  descendants of the ancient empire of Ashur   2:  the Assyrians, although representing but one single nation as the direct heirs of the ancient Assyrian Empire, are now doctrinally divided, inter sese, into five principle ecclesiastically designated religious sects with their corresponding hierarchies and distinct church governments, namely, Church of the East, Chaldean, Maronite, Syriac Orthodox and Syriac Catholic.  These formal divisions had their origin in the 5th century of the Christian Era.  No one can coherently understand the Assyrians as a whole until he can distinguish that which is religion or church from that which is nation -- a matter which is particularly difficult for the people from the western world to understand; for in the East, by force of circumstances beyond their control, religion has been made, from time immemorial, virtually into a criterion of nationality.   3:  the Assyrians have been referred to as Aramaean, Aramaye, Ashuraya, Ashureen, Ashuri, Ashuroyo, Assyrio-Chaldean, Aturaya, Chaldean, Chaldo, ChaldoAssyrian, ChaldoAssyrio, Jacobite, Kaldany, Kaldu, Kasdu, Malabar, Maronite, Maronaya, Nestorian, Nestornaye, Oromoye, Suraya, Syriac, Syrian, Syriani, Suryoye, Suryoyo and Telkeffee. — Assyrianism verb

Aramaic \ar-é-'máik\ n (1998)   1:  a Semitic language which became the lingua franca of the Middle East during the ancient Assyrian empire.   2:  has been referred to as Neo-Aramaic, Neo-Syriac, Classical Syriac, Syriac, Suryoyo, Swadaya and Turoyo.

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