Iranian bishop found dead

AN IRANIAN bishop who had been outspoken in his confrontation with the authorities over human rights issues has been found dead 12 days after he disappeared.

According to the authoritative New York-based Middle East Watch, the son of Bishop Haik Hovsepian Mehr identified his father from photographs shown to him at the Tehran mortuary. He was not allowed to remove the body or even see it.

Middle East Watch said he had apparently been dead since 20 January. It quoted a statement issued by the bishop's parent church as saying that photographs of his body showed stitches in the abdomen, suggesting a post-mortem examination had been carried out.

The bishop had vanished shortly after leading a successful campaign to free his assistant, the Reverend Mehdi Dibaj, who had been sentenced to death for abandoning Islam and converting to Christianity. The campaign, conducted in the Western press and echoed by the United States State Department, infuriated the Iranians. As one leading Iranian churchman put it: 'Bishop Haik made the ultimate act of sacrifice to save his friend.'

At issue is less the right of Christians to practise their religion than the question of drawing attention to Iran's mixed policy towards non- Muslims.

Iran is a predominantly Shia Muslim country, and Christians make up only about 300,000 out of the 17 million population. Both the established churches, the Armenian Orthodox and the Nestorians, are given protected status according to Islamic law. In recent weeks, they have associated themselves with government statements extolling the country's tolerance of religious minorities and enjoyment of full constitutional rights. This was in answer to a report to the UN general assembly by the UN special representative on Iran, Professor Reynaldo Galindo-Pohl, in which he was critical of the state of religious freedoms in Iran.

However, Bishop Haik and the evangelical church of which he was head had refused to sign any such document. They refused to make any commitment not to allow converts to Christianity sanctuary in their church buildings.

Bishop Haik and Mr Dibaj were members of the Assembly of God, an evangelical church which actively sought converts from Islam. Bishop Haik's parents had divorced when he was young, and his mother married a Muslim. At 15, however, he became an active Christian. Mr Dibaj became a Christian 45 years ago, but did not, he said, renounce Islam, since he had never had a religious upbringing.

Iran, like other Islamic states, has never been able to reconcile its commitments to the right of individuals to choose their religion enshrined in the UN charter and declaration of human rights which Iran has signed, with Islamic law which imposes the death penalty for Muslims who renounce Islam, whether or not they convert to other religions, such as Christianity or Bahaiism.

Within Iran, there seems to be a battle between the intelligence establishment, run by the revolutionary guards, and the Justice Ministry, which issued a conciliatory statement after Mr Dibaj was freed.

Obituary, page 14