The Right Rev Hassan Dehqani-Tafti: Exiled Anglican Bishop in Iran

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The Independent Online

Hassan Dehqani-Tafti was Bishop in Iran from 1961, in exile from 1979 until 1985. His life, it is fair to say, was an epic Anglican Christian story. His 1959 autobiography (published in both Persian and English) borrowed its title from the central Maidan (the great royal square) in the city of Isfahan; Naqsh-i-jahan. Like the square, his life was a unity with four sides or dimensions.

The first was his early life in what was then Persia, in the rural town of Taft, where Hassan Barnaba Dehqani-Tafti had been born in 1920. There his Muslim nurture came to embrace a Christian discipleship. He was always at pains to believe and express the two as compatible, so long as the significance of either was ardently understood.

His story took on, secondly, a vigorous education, through Stuart Memorial College in Isfahan and the rigours of obligatory service in the Armed Forces where his resources of character were sharply tested. What emerged was a sense of his being meant for Christian ministry – a conviction which was sternly tried and tested by the diocese of Iran, then led by his father-in-law-to-be, the Right Rev William Thompson.

The tale passed, thirdly, into a cherished period of study at Ridley Hall theological college in Cambridge, where the poetry in him quickly responded to the aura of the ancient stones of the university and its scholarly traditions. On his return to Isfahan, he grew deeper into the claims of Christian ministry to become, in 1961, the first Bishop in Iran of Persian vintage.

Initially, there was little to appal in the fourth side of this biographical Maidan, only a ripening leadership to participate, around 1974, in the reorganisation of the Archbishopric in Jerusalem (of which Iran was a part) into the Anglican Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East. In 1976 Dehqani-Tafti became the first Presiding Bishop of this new entity, overseeing the initiation of a Palestinian leadership in Jerusalem and an Egyptian episcopate in Cairo.

Four years later, however, a desperate chapter ensued. The anti-Christian intolerance rooted in Ayatollah Khomeini's version of Islam was full of malice against a Persian Christian making good a Christian leadership in the hallowed precincts to which, from long exile, Khomeini had triumphantly returned in 1979. Hassan Dehqani-Tafti, his family and those close to him, became subject to harassment and duress.

One of his senior clergy, Arastoo Sayyeh, was murdered in Shiraz by men who came to visit on the pretext of friendship. Hassan and his wife Margaret narrowly escaped the same fate while sleeping in their home in Isfahan; their pillows were riddled with bullet-holes. Hassan found himself in exile, not as a fugitive, but in the course of his duty as presiding bishop of the province. Then, while he was finding a place to pitch an exile's tent, came the news of the murder in May 1980 of his only son, Bahram, by thugs in Tehran.

Finally came the invitation of Bishop John V. Taylor of Winchester by which in 1982 Hassan Dehqani-Tafti became Assistant Bishop in the diocese, where he served some score of years, latterly as Honorary Assistant Bishop.

Biographies of Dehquani-Tafti's order exemplify not the mere limitation (as in Judaism and Islam) of the lex talionis but the total abrogation of "right of vengeance". In hymn-writing and his books, he underlined both the potential unison of cultures and the ecumenical reach of his Christianity. Throughout his travels he was ably sustained by his wife Margaret.

Kenneth Cragg

Hassan Barnaba Dehqani-Tafti, priest: born Taft, Persia 14 May 1920; ordained deacon 1949, priest 1950; Pastor, St Luke's Church, Isfahan 1950-60; Pastor, St Paul's Church, Tehran 1960-61; Bishop in Iran 1961-90, Vicar-General 1990-91; President-Bishop, Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East 1976-86; Episcopal Canon, St George's Cathedral, Jerusalem 1976-90; Commissary to Bishop in Iran 1991-2000; Assistant Bishop of Winchester 1982-90, Honorary Assistant Bishop 1990-2006; married 1952 Margaret Thompson (three daughters, and one son deceased); died Oakham, Rutland 28 April 2008.