Canon John Coleman

Missionary imprisoned in Iran

John Wycliffe Coleman, medical missionary and priest: born Cairo 10 May 1924; ordained deacon 1977, priest 1978; married 1946 Audrey Ponsford (died 2001; four sons); died London 16 August 2003.

John Coleman was one of the British missionaries detained in 1981 during the Iran crisis and freed through the work of the Archbishop of Canterbury's envoy Terry Waite.

But for the Iranian Revolution, Coleman might have lived out his life in relative obscurity and he probably would have preferred that. He was a devoted husband and father, a generous man of action, blessed with a great sense of humour, with little time for theological fineries, preferring to express a deep faith through actions rather than words.

In August 1980, however, the small Episcopal (Anglican) community in Iran found itself the target of revolutionary radicals. Some church members, including the Bishop's son, lost their lives. The Bishop, the Right Rev Hassan Dehqani-Tafti, fled into exile. John Coleman and his wife Audrey, with Jean Waddell (secretary to the bishop) and several local church workers, including the future bishop, Iraj Muttahedeh, were imprisoned.

This crisis marked the start of the career of Terry Waite, the Archbishop of Canterbury's envoy, as an international hostage negotiator. Waite and Coleman were very different in their style of Christianity but that did not stand in the way of a friendship that continued.

Captivity meant a lot of suffering and deprivation, but it did not embitter Coleman. He always spoke sympathetically about Iranians and their national aspirations. Years later, he would laugh about wearing the same vest and Marks and Spencer trousers throughout the entire 200 days. On his return to Britain, Marks and Spencer presented him with several new pairs - they lasted two decades.

Coleman was born in 1924 in Cairo, the son of a missionary doctor. He lived in Egypt long enough for it to leave a powerful impression and he loved hot climates. At the age of eight, he resolved to follow in his father's footsteps as a medical missionary. He studied at Christ's College, Cambridge, and St Thomas' Hospital in London and married Audrey Ponsford, a pharmacist, in 1946.

The Colemans' missionary career began in 1948 in Palestine with the Church Mission Society (CMS). War in Palestine necessitated a transfer and the couple moved to Iran where they worked for 17 years, based at a church hospital in Shiraz.

John Coleman particularly enjoyed running mobile clinics in remote villages. Often whole families would accompany a sick relative, and would tap Coleman on the knee to offer their diagnoses. He always finished his clinic with a short talk, usually based on a bible story.

In 1964, the Colemans returned to England for the education of their four sons. For the next 14 years, John Coleman was Superintendent of the Bethnal Green Medical Mission, founded pre-NHS to offer healthcare to the urban poor. He built links with the Crypt Project, a ministry to alcoholics at Christ Church, Spitalfields. His sons recall how he would regularly invite some of the clients to share the family Christmas lunch.

In 1978 Bishop Dehqani-Tafti invited the Colemans to return to Iran. They settled in Yadz to run a local clinic. The little church there had no priest and Dehqani-Tafti agreed to ordain Coleman. He was required to write a series of essays to be submitted to the bishop's chaplain. He set about the task with characteristic energy, writing 19 in all, though it is said that some were a little short.

His 200-day captivity in Iran meant media exposure and opened many doors for Coleman as a speaker and international traveller. For the three years after their release, the couple travelled widely and visited Australia and New Zealand, in all giving 526 talks.

Coleman's relationship with his wife Audrey was his fount of strength and he was devastated by her death in 2001. They enjoyed a close family life and family holidays became an institution. The entire clan, in latter years 30 in all, would take over a guest house or conference centre for an annual holiday fortnight.

In 1985 John Coleman returned to the Middle East to take change of the church of Epiphany in Port Said. He spent five fulfilling years and formed a close friendship with an Egyptian doctor, Mouneer Anis, from Menouf Christian Hospital. Coleman encouraged the Church in Egypt to appreciate Mouneer's leadership qualities and this was later recognised when he was ordained and succeeded as Bishop in Egypt.

In recognition of his services Coleman received an honorary canonry of Cairo Cathedral. He served as chair of the Egypt Diocesan Association and was a staunch member of the Friends of the Diocese of Iran.

Ken Osborne

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