Confessors and Martyrs: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
Confessors and Martyrs
It was a day in the late autumn of 1984. My wife, Janet, and I were making our way to a lunch appointment in an English village close to the ancient cathedral city of Winchester. Through the good offices of a friend who had taught in a Presbyterian college in Iran, we had been invited to have lunch and to spend the afternoon with Bishop Dehqani-Tafti and his wife, Margaret.
Arriving at a small whitewashed house, the Bishop and his wife were already standing in the doorway to greet us. Invited in, they explained that they were still furnishing the house as they had to abandon most of their personal possessions when they left Iran.
Dehqani-Tafti was the first ethnic Persian to serve as the Bishop of the small Anglican Church in Iran and, by the time we met him he had already spent four years exiled in England. You see, the Islamic Revolution of February 1979, was a violent storm that broke upon the Church in Iran. An Anglican priest in Shiraz, Arastoo Sayyah, was the first to be 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, the church buildings and the Bishop were left.
Even as he mourned, Dehqani-Tafti protested against the injustice of these violent measures, but the response was the looting of his house and his own temporary arrest and interrogation. There then followed an attempt on his life one night in October 1979. Two gunmen broke into his house, entered his bedroom and fired at point-blank range. Miraculously, the bullets narrowly missed his head, although one injured his wife’s hand as she instinctively flung herself across his body to protect him. Margaret had kept the pillowcase with its halo of bullet holes surrounding the place where his head had lain and her hand still bore a scar.
A week later, the Bishop left Iran for the meeting of Anglican bishops in Cyprus. After much inner turmoil and reflection, he took their advice not to return to Iran. In 1980, however, tragedy was to strike again in Tehran. In early May, his secretary Jean Waddell was shot and wounded, and on May 6 his only son, Bahram, a lecturer at Damavand College, was shot on the roadside near the school. It is said that he refused to renounce Christ before the fatal shots were fired by two assailants belonging to the Revolutionary Guard.
Seated on the floor around a low dining table, Persian style, we ate together as they shared their story with a quiet dignity, interrupted only by our questions or observations. As we continued to converse, touching upon a number of subjects, I became aware that we were in the presence of confessors of the faith, and the parents of a martyr. What I studied in the early Church, they had lived… and would continue to live.
The time passed quickly. The shadows of the late afternoon lengthened and we prepared to take our leave. The Bishop excused himself for a moment and returned with two pieces of paper. They contained the prayer he wrote for his son’s funeral. Handwritten, one was in Farsi and the other was his own English translation. Placing the papers in my hand, he said, “Please, accept this as a gift…” A few years later, it was the first piece I included in my book, ‘Martyrs Prayers’.
We remember not only our son 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 civilized 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 hatred 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.
Our son’s blood has multiplied the fruit of the Spirit in the soil of our souls;
So when his murderers stand before thee on the Day of Judgement
Remember the fruit of the Spirit by which they have enriched our lives.
Now, after all these years, when I read American Christians blithely refer to mask mandates and other public health measures as “persecution” or “totalitarianism” my memory recalls the sight of a scarred hand. I remember a bishop in exile in a foreign land. I see once again a father and mother, with tears in their eyes, sharing a prayer of forgiveness, and I find myself ashamed… and humbled.