Protestant 'martyrs' shot in Iran

A QUESTION has been tabled in the House of Lords for today about the unexplained deaths of two Protestant churchmen in Iran, including a convert from Islam who was the object of an international campaign last December.

They are the latest victims of a campaign to eliminate members of evangelical churches who have refused to go along with a government-inspired fiction that Christians enjoy freedom of worship in the Islamic Republic.

The Iranian authorities have confirmed that the bodies have been found of the Rev Tateos Michaelian, chairman of the Council of Protestant Ministers in Iran, and Mehdi Dibaj, a convert to Christianity who had spent nine years in Iranian jails.

According to Christian Solidarity International, an evangelical support group in Britain, Michaelian left home on 29 June and was not seen alive again. Last Saturday, his son Galo was called by the authorities in Tehran to identify his body. He had been shot in the head. The authorities also announced on Monday that they had found the body of Mehdi Dibaj in a part in western Tehran while they were looking for the killers of Michaelian.

Dibaj was released from prison on 16 January after a huge international campaign. He had been harassed by the Iranian authorities for rejecting his Islamic roots and being baptised as a member of the evangelical Assembly of God. Islamic law stipulates death as the punishment for Muslims who reject Islam.

Three days after Dibaj was released from jail in January, his friend and mentor Bishop Haik Hovespian Mehr, who had helped secure his freedom, was murdered. Mehr had infuriated the Iranian authorities for publicly confronting the state. He had refused to sign a document stating that the Islamic Republic was tolerant of religious minorities and afforded complete freedom of worship.

The two established Christian communities in Iran, the Nestorians and the Armenian Orthodox, have protected status under Islamic law.

Mehr was succeeded by Michaelian as the most senior Protestant cleric in Iran. In the last sermon he gave before his death, in Mehr's old church in Tehran, Michaelian preached about how Christians should be prepared for martyrdom. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy, but one all the more poignant in a country where the Shia Muslim majority itself is obsessed with the spirit of martyrdom.

The Iranian authorities later announced they had arrested a woman in connection with the murders.

Obituaries, page 16