In Iran the church is growing, but many have given their lives for their faith. Catherin Butcher tells the story of three who were prepared to stand for Christ in a country where conversion is not welcome.
“Release me or kill me – it would be an honour for me to die for Christ.” Within months of speaking these words to his captors, Iranian Pastor Mehdi Dibaj was dead. He was the third Christian leader to be martyred in Iran in 1994.
Mehdi Dibaj’s story is told in the Cox’s Book of Modern Saints Martyrs. Speaking at the book launch in the House of Lords earlier this year, Mehdi Dibaj’s son Issa said, “Books such as this remind the western church that people are being killed in other parts of the world simply because they believe in Jesus Christ.” Issa’s father was not the last of Iran’s martyrs. In November last year (2005) another Christian leader -- Ghorbandordi Tourani -- paid the ultimate price for his faith.
A gentle man
Mehdi Dibaj was born into a Muslim family in 1934 and converted to Christianity at the age of 14.
“When his family found out he had become a Christian he was expelled from the house,” Issa explained. “He went to Tehran where local Christians looked after him, and started working at a Christian bookshop. He had a zeal for evangelism and wanted to dedicate his whole life to Christian ministry.”
After theological training in India, Beirut and Switzerland, he began work in Afghanistan where he translated the Gospel of Mark into the local language. But when he returned for a brief visit to Iran, he was not allowed to re-enter Afghanistan.
Back in Iran, Mehdi Dibaj married and settled in Babol on the Caspian Sea, where he taught English at the university. He was also working on one of Iran’s first Christian radio stations when the Iranian revolution ushered Ayatollah Khomeini to power in 1979.
“He resigned from the university because he wanted to dedicate his life to Bible translation, but had lots of trouble from the Government,” Issa recalled. Issa was only a boy, but says, “I remember those days when we were receiving threatening letters and phone calls.”
In 1983 Mehdi was arrested and imprisoned on false charges. The main reason for his arrest, Issa said, were the radio broadcasts: “The police came to our house and took away all his papers about the radio station.”
He was released after 68 days, but was arrested again the following year. He then spent the next nine and a half years in prison, including three years in solitary confinement in the notorious Evin prison in Tehran.
Writing in the on-line Persian Journal, fellow inmate Bahman Aghai Diba wrote of his prison encounter with Mehdi:
“The old man had a calm face. He kept smiling mildly and looked around with appreciation. I had not met him before and this was the first time (and the last time) that he was walking with ‘us’. I mean with our group of prisoners in the notorious Evin prison of Iran… [He] was ‘Ke-shish (Christian Clergy) Dibaji’ a Christian priest and his crime was changing his religion from Islam to Christianity…”He was not one of my cellmates, and I noticed him because he was walking as a person who was very satisfied and content. He was telling things slowly to himself that I could not understand at first. Later I came to know that he was reciting Christian hymns in Farsi and English. I asked him ‘why are you so joyful?’ He said I am praying to God that has made this beautiful day possible for me. Look around you; isn't it beautiful? The flowers, the sight of mountains and the huge trees are around us, and I am in the company of nice people. I am thankful to God.
“Of course, I did not care about his Christianity, as I did not care about my Islam. However, in the middle of terrible conditions that existed there (our lives were under the control of the Assdollah Lajevardi, the Butcher of Evin and his blood thirsty assistant, Karbelai, the administrative head of Evin who was called ‘Pishva’ like Fuehrer) it was interesting for me that a person can have such a spirit.”
Issa also remembers his father as “a very gentle man” – “loved by all the prisoners and the guards”.
“For many years we were just waiting for him to be put on trial,” Issa explained. “Because his crime was apostasy the sentence already laid down under Islamic sharia law is death. But the government didn’t want to kill him because that would give them bad publicity, so every time his case was due to be dealt with, he had to sign an appeal letter and they postponed it. Finally he said ‘No, this time I won’t appeal. Either release me or kill me. It would be an honour for me to die for Christ.’ “
The case finally went to court in December 1993. Mehdi Dibaj was found guilty and sentenced to death. The court verdict read:'... he has chosen the religion of Christianity... because of his non-repentance and his insistence on his non-Islamic belief... he is sentenced to execution.'
In his defence, Mehdi said, “I am a Christian, a sinner who believes Jesus has died for my sins on the cross and who by His resurrection and victory over death, has made me righteous in the presence of the Holy God….
…They say, 'You were a Muslim and you have become a Christian.” No, for many years I had no religion. After searching and studying I accepted God's call and I believed in the Lord Jesus Christ in order to receive eternal life. People choose their religion, but a Christian is chosen by Christ. He says, 'You have not chosen me but I have chosen you.' From when? Before the foundation of the world.
People say, 'You were a Muslim from your birth.' God says, 'You were a Christian from the beginning.' He states that He chose us thousands of years ago, even before the creation of the universe, so that through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ we may be His! A Christian means one who belongs to Jesus Christ.
The eternal God, who sees the end from the beginning and who has chosen me to belong to Him, knew from everlasting whose heart would be drawn to Him and who would be willing to sell their faith and eternity for a pot of porridge.
I would rather have the whole world against me, but know the Almighty God is with me; be called an apostate, but know I have the approval of the God of glory….” 
Issa said, ‘When my father received the execution letter he gave a copy of it to an Armenian prison guard who passed it to Bishop Haik, the Bishop of our church. Within days, the news that an Iranian was about to be executed because of his faith was all over the world. Lord Alton, Baroness Cox and many others were among those campaigning for his release. The government was not expecting this reaction so they released him.’
During his imprisonment Mehdi’s wife’s life had been threatened and she had been forced to convert to Islam. Issa was studying at Tehran University at the time of his father’s release, and his brother and two sisters were also studying in different Iranian cities, so Mehdi began planning to return to Afghanistan as a missionary.
But those bent on violence were not finished with him. Three days after Mehdi’s release from prison, Assemblies of God Bishop, Haik Hovsepian-Mehr was killed. His phone had been tapped and government officials knew he was behind the international protests over Mehdi’s death sentence.
According to government officials in Iran, Bishop Haik’s body was found by the police in one of the suburbs of Tehran. He had been stabbed several times in the chest.
At the beginning of July Tateos Michaelian, Bishop Haik’s successor as chairman of Iran’s Council of Protestant Ministers, was also killed. According to official reports his body was found inside a freezer in a private house. The cause of death was multiple gunshot wounds to the head.
Days later, on 5 July 1994, Mehdi Dibaj was found murdered. He had been stabbed three times in the heart. The Iranian government claimed that the three deaths were the work of extremists, but when the regime changed proof came to light that government officers had carried out the killings. Going with his younger brother to identify his father’s body had a profound effect on 19-year-old Issa Dibaj. “We had to be careful not to let hatred get the upper hand – forgiveness was a challenge. The turning point for me was when my brother and I went to the morgue to identify his body. It was the first time that I had come face to face with the reality of death. It brought me to my senses and I knew I had to take my own relationship with God a lot more seriously. After all, one day I, too, will die and have to be personally accountable to God. Also, my Christian faith was something for which my father’s blood had been shed.”
Issa came to terms with his father’s death, forgiving his executioners “by thinking Jesus died for them also – Jesus forgave them, so who am I not to forgive them.” Issa later came to the UK to complete a PhD. He and his wife Maryam now live in England where he is involved in Bible translation work. Issa shows no trace of bitterness about his father’s death and has high hopes for the Church in Iran where, he says, the government is afraid of Christians: “The average Iranian is fascinated by this message of love. They look at their own religion and see nothing but fighting and hatred. Then they see Christians who love each other, who are so joyful; they see the difference immediately and they want to know how to become like that. The government doesn’t like this.”Catherine Butcher is a journalist and editor.
 The full text of Mehdi Dibaj’s defence testimony is included on page 169-171 of the Cox’s Book of Modern Saints Martyrs and on-line at http://www.farsinet.com/dibaj/index.html where an audio tape of Mehdi's testimony is also available.