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Iran's Christian Martyr: Haik Hovsepian

Haik Hovsepian gave his life to share the gospel with his fellow Iranians — now, despite opposition, the Iranian Church is the fastest growing evangelical church in the world.
In Acts 2:9, Luke reports the presence of “Parthians, Medes, and Elamites” in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost.

It is possible these pilgrims from the land of Persia were among the first converts to faith in the resurrected Jesus (Acts 2:41).

When Armenia became the first nation to adopt Christianity as its official religion in 301, many of these believers established churches in Persia, also known as Elam or Iran.

The Arab conquests of the Middle East beginning in the seventh century started a cycle of religious persecution that continued for centuries.

During the 17th century and again in the early 20th century, war forcibly relocated hundreds of thousands of Armenian Christians to Iran, now a majority Muslim nation.

Due to restrictions, the Iranian Armenian Christians had a long-standing reluctance to evangelize their Muslim neighbors. However, in 1965, a small group of Armenian believers in Tehran contacted Assemblies of God World Missions (AGWM) requesting help with evangelization and discipleship.

Missionaries Mark and Gladys Bliss, along with their three children, arrived later that year and began assisting the small churches with Bible study courses and materials publishing.

One young man in the church felt a strong calling to evangelize his Muslim neighbors. Born in 1945 to a nominally Christian family, Haik Hovsepian was a gifted musician and persuasive apologist.

Hovsepian and Bliss started the process of planting a church in the Muslim town of Gorgon.

On Oct. 24, 1969, while interpreting during a conference for ministers, Hovsepian began weeping. Sensing God asking whether he was willing to go through tribulation to evangelize Iranian Muslims, Hovsepian whispered, “Anything, Lord.”

The next day, Hovsepian and his wife, Takoosh, along with their 6-month-old son and the entire Bliss family were traveling together to Gorgon when they were involved in a car accident that killed all four children.

Despite this tragic loss, Hovsepian continued presenting the gospel to anyone who would listen — regardless of religious affiliation or ethnicity. Throughout the 1970s, he led the church in Gorgon and established other house churches, training their leadership with the help of Mark Bliss.

In 1979, the Iranian Revolution sent shock waves around the world as the Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew Iran’s monarchy and established the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The new regime forced out Western missionaries and outlawed Persian (Farsi) Christian literature, including Bibles.

Rising to the forefront of Christian leadership was the capable Haik Hovsepian, who in 1981 became general superintendent (bishop) for the Assemblies of God of Iran.

Under Khomeini, Muslims leaving the faith or encouraging others to do so faced the threat of execution. Nevertheless, the Iranian AG remained committed to evangelism.

Persecution continued throughout the 1980s, with a new wave of intensity during the early ’90s. On Dec. 3, 1990, the Islamic Republic executed ordained AG minister Hossein Soodmand.

In 1993, government officials ordered non-Muslim shopkeepers to post notices announcing their religious affiliation. Shoppers likewise had to identify their religion before doing business.

The regime mandated all churches sign a statement they would not evangelize Muslims. Hovsepian refused to sign, insisting AG churches would welcome anyone, without discrimination.

Despite a ban on Christian services in Farsi (the official language of Iran and its Muslim majority), AG churches continued holding services in the language of their people.

Hovsepian, now also chairman of the Council of Protestant Ministers, met with the Ministry of Islamic Guidance for Minorities, requesting protection for Christian civil liberties.

The result was a new requirement that all Christian denominations sign declarations stating they enjoyed full constitutional rights in Iran. The United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva and New York received copies of the signed statements.

Only the Assemblies of God and the Church of the Brethren refused to sign, with Hovsepian instead writing a letter detailing the human rights violations his church was experiencing.

In December 1993, AG pastor and Muslim convert Mehdi Dibaj — who had already spent nine years in prison for charges including “apostasy” and “insulting Islam” — came before the judicial court.

Hovsepian received a leaked copy of Dibaj’s defense statement and circulated it throughout the Western world to raise awareness of the human rights violations in Iran. The London Times published it in full.

Many human rights organizations and governments responded with condemnations of Iran. Consequently, officials released Dibaj on Jan. 16, 1994, despite the death sentence remaining in place for proselytizing.

Three days later, Hovsepian, 49, left his home to meet a friend at the airport in Tehran. He never returned.

Christians declared a day of fasting and prayer for the missing bishop.

On Jan. 30, Iranian authorities contacted Hovsepian’s family asking for someone to identify his body. The bishop’s 20-year-old son, Joseph Hovsepian, had to look through pictures of mutilated corpses before he finally saw his deceased father.

Haik Hovsepian’s body had been found in a Tehran suburb hours after his disappearance, buried, and later interred. The family asked permission to attend to his body and prepare it for a Christian burial. Officials said police officers would transport the body and remain with it at all times until the burial — precluding an opportunity for autopsy.

While washing the body of their husband and father, the family counted 26 stab wounds.

On Feb. 3, 1994, more than 2,000 people waited three hours in the bitter cold for Hovsepian’s graveside service in Tehran.

There were also memorial services for Hovsepian around the world, including in the U.S., United Kingdom, Turkey, Norway, Germany, and Denmark.

Demonstrators gathered at Iranian embassies in Paris, London, and Seoul, South Korea.

Thomas Trask, then general superintendent of the Assemblies of God USA, wrote to constituents, “A martyr has fallen, and we are all diminished by the loss.”

On June 24, Dibaj left a church conference to attend his daughter’s birthday party in Tehran but never arrived. His body was found July 5 in a Tehran park.

Five days after Dibaj’s disappearance, Tatevos Michaelian, a Presbyterian minister who succeeded Hovsepian as chairman of the Protestant churches, disappeared. Michaelian was later found shot to death.

The families of Dibaj and Michaelian were not allowed to examine the bodies of their slain loved ones.

During a sermon less than a year before his death, Hovsepian said Christians in ancient Persia had long known the cost of following Jesus.

As Daniel, Mordecai, and Esther were willing to risk everything, Hovsepian said, the Iranian church had to do the same.

Quoting Dibaj, Hovsepian told them, “It is a terrible waste for a Christian to die a natural death.”

Doug Clark, then area director for AGWM in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Arab Gulf, summed it up this way in a letter to missionaries following the outbreak of persecution in the 1990s:

The Assemblies of God in Iran has a response to all of this. They quote an Iranian proverb, “The oven is hot. Now it is time to bake the bread.” By that they mean, “Only through the fires of persecution will we become bread for this spiritually hungry nation. Lord, turn up the heat!”

Even as the heat increases on the Iranian Church today, the Holy Spirit is moving.

In 2023, Iran was No. 8 on Open Doors’ list of top 10 most difficult places to be a Christian. Freedom Watch gave the nation a rating of 0 out of 4 for religious freedom.

Nevertheless, International Christian Concern named the Iranian Church the fastest-growing evangelical church in the world. This growth is due in part to the evangelistic passion of Iranian AG ministers and laity.

As Revelation 12:11 says, their triumph is “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.”

This article appears in the Winter 2024 issue of Influence magazine.

Ruthie Edgerly Oberg

Ruthie Edgerly Oberg is an ordained Assemblies of God minister and fourth generation Pentecostal. She served in senior and associate pastoral roles for 25 years. Oberg speaks at national conferences and local churches.