John Clark writes:
THE Rt Revd Dr Hassan Barnaba Dehqani-Tafti, who died on 29 April, will be remembered as one of the outstanding, gifted, and courageous bishops of the Anglican Communion in the second half of the 20th century.
He served as Bishop in Iran from 1961 to 1990, and President Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem & the Middle East from 1976 to 1986. He deployed his many gifts to relate the Christian faith to the culture and language of the Persian and Islamic heritages of Iran. It was as he himself was called to walk the way of the cross, when his only son Bahram was murdered in 1980, that he came to international prominence.
Born on 14 May 1920 in the village of Taft, near Yazd, in Central Iran, he was brought up by CMS missionaries in accordance with the wishes of his mother, who died when he was five. Educated at the Stuart Memorial College in Isfahan, it was in his teens that he became a committed Christian and leading member of the Isfahan youth group. At his baptism in 1938, he retained his Muslim name of Hassan, but added the Christian name of Barnaba — son of consolation — reflecting even at that early age his concern to hold within himself a gospel rooted in the culture and religion of Iran.
He graduated as a teacher from Tehran University in 1943 (producing a thesis on Christianity in Iran before Islam), and offered himself for service in the Church, but first had to serve for two years in the Iranian Imperial Army, where his knowledge of English led to his appointment as an interpreter to British officers serving in the country.
From 1945 to 1947, he worked as a layman in the diocese under Bishop William Thompson before being selected for ordination. After training at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, he was appointed Pastor of St Luke’s, Isfahan, in 1949. He served there for ten years until he was transferred for a short period to St Paul’s, Tehran, in preparation for his consecration as Bishop in Iran in succession to Bishop Thompson in 1961. He was the first Iranian to become a bishop since the seventh century (outside the ethnic Armenian and Assyrian Churches).
His ministry was immeasurably strengthened by his marriage in 1952 to Bishop Thompson’s daughter Margaret, whose love, companionship, and gifts of hospitality helped carry him through a ministry with stresses and strains that few have to endure.
One of his priorities was to expand the educational work of the Church, which he did by establishing secondary schools for boys and girls in Isfahan. He was also concerned to increase the ordained leadership and to develop indigenous Persian Christian literature (much of which he wrote himself), liturgy, and hymnology. There was much travel within the country and internationally (he preached at the closing Wembley rally for the 1968 Lambeth Conference).
In 1976, he was elected the first President Bishop of the newly formed Episcopal Church in Jerusalem & the Middle East, a calling that required him to help bring coherence and a sense of togetherness to Churches in a very disparate Middle East and North Africa, facing the impact of oil wealth, a resurgent Islam, and the seeming intractable conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
The Islamic Revolution of February 1979, meant that a whirlwind struck the little Church in Iran. The priest in Shiraz, Arastoo Sayyah, was brutally murdered. In the next five months, the Church’s institutions — hospitals and schools — were expropriated, and its bank accounts were confiscated. Only the people and church buildings were left.
Bishop Hassan protested against the injustice of these violent seizures, but the response was the looting of his house, and his own temporary arrest and interrogation, followed by an attempt on his life one night in October 1979. Two gunmen entered his bedroom and fired at point-blank range, but, miraculously, the bullets narrowly missed his head, although one injured his wife’s hand as she flung herself across him to protect him.
A week later, he left Iran for the meeting of the Anglican Primates in Cyprus. After much inner turmoil, he took their advice not to return to Iran, but his wife and younger daughters did. In 1980, tragedy was to strike. In early May, his secretary Jean Waddell was shot and wounded, and on 6 May his only son Bahram, a lecturer at Damavand College, Tehran, was found shot on the roadside near the college, possibly by government agents.
His death left a lasting scar, but for Bahram’s funeral in Isfahan five days later, which he could not attend, Bishop Hassan wrote a remarkable and moving prayer that was to become much translated and circulated around the world. It concluded with the following lines:
Bahram’s blood multiplies the
fruit of the Spirit in the soil of
So when his murderers stand
before thee on the Day of
Remember the fruit of the Spirit
by which they have enriched
For the next ten years, he continued as Bishop in Iran, but in exile. Bishop John V. Taylor invited him to be Assistant Bishop in Winchester diocese, as a base from which he could continue his ministry. He wrote extensively, communicated with Iran by phone and letter, and travelled within the province as President Bishop until 1986. He developed a much-appreciated ministry in Winchester diocese.
He started a Persian-language Christian fellowship in London, for Iranian Christians in exile. He initiated his own publishing house, significantly named Sohrab Books, producing more than 25 new or reprinted titles in Persian and English from his pen, including the masterly three-volume Christ and Christianity in Persian Poetry, and his own moving autobiography The Unfolding Design of My World. He had almost completed his final book within days of his death.
Almost all his adult life was devoted to the service of the very small Christian community in Iran, and to translating the Christian faith into the life and culture of Iran. He was a gifted poet, hymn-writer, and watercolour painter. He enjoyed conversation, lacing forthright discussion with humour and the occasional quote from a Persian poet. He was a kindly, approachable leader and pastor, who knew the complexities of the human heart and had developed a deep personal spirituality.
In retirement, he continued to write, translate, and publish, often announcing that his latest book was his last, but then another would emerge.
He took great delight in the doings of his three daughters, their husbands, and his six grandchildren. In his early eighties he was diagnosed with a blood condition that required regular transfusions, which grew increasingly frequent and were eventually of little effect. His funeral took place on the 88th anniversary of his birth.
John Clark is the Chairman of the Friends of the Diocese of Iran.