Postcard from London
By John Martin
A service in Wakefield Cathedral launching a eucharistic liturgy in the Farsi (Persian) language is a sequel to an intriguing mission story.
The Rt. Rev. Guli Francis Dehqani, Bishop of Loughborough led the service. At age 14 in 1979 she fled with her family to England after the murder of her brother Bahram early in the Iranian revolution. Her father, the Rt. Rev. Hassan Dehqani Tafti, was Anglican Bishop of Iran. He died in 2008.
Guli Francis Dehqani oversees the Church of England’s ministry to Iranians. She reports having heard from over 75 clergy seeking advice on how to integrate Iranians into their churches.
The Rt. Rev. Paul Butler, Bishop of Durham, and the Rt. Rev. Toby Howarth, Bishop of Bradford and a scholar in Islam, joined in the service. Greetings were read aloud from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York.
Most Iranians in the United Kingdom are highly motivated to learn English. This new liturgy is printed side by side in Farsi and English. During the dedication service, a congregation of 450 sang hymns that alternated between English and Farsi.
“We’re formally recognizing a minority community as part of our wider body, and crucially enabling Persian Farsi-speaking people and English-speaking people to worship alongside one another,” Bishop Dehqani said.
Bishop Howarth said that being Persian and Christian are compatible and Persian Christianity has a “long, proud history” that is older than Islam.
Before the rise of Islam, the Persian church sponsored a dynamic monastic missionary movement that was effective in spreading Christianity in the region.
Iran’s population is today over 98 percent Muslim (mainly Shiite). The largest Christian grouping is the ancient Armenian church. Overall, Christians make up less than 5 percent of the population.
Western missions in Iran worked for a century before the Iranian revolution without making significant headway. Anglicans followed the long-standing pattern of building institutions in order to be a valued presence, offering service in schools, hospitals, and clinics.
The theory was this would create good will (the Shah came to an Anglican hospital to have his appendix removed). These projects depended on foreign funds and could be a pretext for xenophobia. And insisting on Western medical standards sometimes made local staff feel defensive.
But while the Iranian revolution has taken its toll, not least on people of non-Shiite faiths, there has been an unforeseen result. While a century of Western missions created just a tiny pool of Christian believers, the church is growing in the Iranian diaspora in cities like London, Melbourne, New York, and Sydney. It is like a replay of the earliest Christians fleeing in all directions from Jerusalem after martyrdom of Stephen.
Within a diaspora of 4 to 5 million Iranians there are an estimated 200,000 Christian believers in about 800 Persian-speaking churches and house fellowships, according to Operation World. Moreover, people who have come to faith in the diaspora visit Iran and are contributing to growth of the Christian community there.
I’m not claiming that this Christian expansion is enormous. Many Iranians who have left their homeland have turned their backs on faith altogether. This is not surprising, especially among young people, who reject the oppressive ruling regime in Iran. A quarter of the population is under 15.
Farsi-language Christian satellite broadcasts, originating from London and Cyprus, are almost impossible to block despite regular confiscations of TV sets. There are significant ministries dedicated to work with the Iranian diaspora, notably Elam Ministries, 222 Ministries, Persian World Outreach, Iran Alive Ministries, and Iranian Christians International.
These ministries believe there is a burgeoning underground church in Iran. It is composed mainly of younger people who are discovering Christianity as an alternative that is also authentically Persian.