HAIK HOVSEPIAN MEHR was the boldest of the Christian church leaders in defending Christian rights in Iran. He disappeared in Tehran on 19 January just days after one of his church members, Mehdi Dibaj, was freed from prison. Dibaj had been sentenced to death on charges of 'apostasy' (converting from Islam to Christianity) and Hovsepian Mehr had been instrumental in bringing Dibaj's plight to the attention of the world. Hovsepian Mehr apparently died the day after his disappearance, and his body was identified from photographs shown to his family on Sunday. Iranian police denied that he had been detained by the country's security forces, but international human-rights groups are treating the death with suspicion and have demanded an inquiry.
Hovsepian Mehr was born into a middle-class Armenian family in Tehran in 1945. He became a pastor of a church in Majidieh, a suburb of Tehran, while in his late teens. After military service and marriage he moved to Gorgan to pastor the church he had founded during his military service in the area. It was there that he was ordained. A car crash in 1969 severely injured Hovsepian Mehr and his wife, and killed their first child. Despite intermittent harassment from local Muslims who, on one occasion, planned to burn down the church, Hovsepian Mehr ran the Gorgan church for 14 years. He was there during the 1979 Islamic revolution, when his church was saved from destruction only through the intervention of a local Muslim cleric.
In 1981 Hovsepian Mehr moved to Tehran to take up the post of Superintendent of the Pentecostal Assemblies of God churches, of which there were seven in Iran. During his ministry, and despite the difficulties for Christian churches in Islamic Iran, a further five were founded. In 1986 the Protestant churches joined together in a unified Council of Protestant Churches, of which Hovsepian Mehr was elected president. The job put him in the limelight. Unlike the Armenian and Syriac Churches, which cater specifically to ethnic and religious minorities, the Assemblies of God mainly serve Farsi-speaking Christians, most of whom are of Muslim background. It was because of this that they were singled out for attack by the government and Islamic bodies. Publication of Christian literature was banned by the authorities and some churches were closed down, including five Assemblies of God churches. Another Assemblies of God pastor was executed in 1990.
Hovsepian Mehr was courageous in resisting government restrictions. Last year he was one of only two church leaders to refuse to sign a declaration stating that they would not allow Muslims or Muslim converts into their churches. He also refused to sign a statement that Christians enjoyed full rights in Iran. He compiled a detailed report on violations of religious freedom and invited Professor Reynaldo Pohl, the United Nations Special Representative to Iran, to visit the country and meet Protestant ministers and government officials to discuss these violations. He also met the Ministry of Islamic Guidance for Minorities to call for the government to respect the rights of religious minorities set out in the 1979 Constitution.
It would appear that Hovsepian Mehr's courageous stand for Christian rights cost him his life.