Iranian hunger striker Abdul Rahim Dehdozorgi may not have failed in his mission to draw the world’s attention to the plight of his Pastor back home on death row.
Youcef Nadakhani was released today (Wednesday 10th September) from prison, after spending three years on death row for apostasy – changing his religion - a charge he denied.
One of his flock, Dehdozorgi had spent two weeks camped outside the offices of Amnesty in London, in protest, before being carted off to University College Hospital in Euston at the weekend.
Wilf Merttens describes here his harrowing meeting.
Abdul is about forty years old. His expression is earnest, but his eyes keep losing focus. My questions are wearing him down. He will have to rest soon. For the moment however, he is eager to tell his story.
There are moments when I can see that he would be smiling, were it not for the fact that his mouth is sewn shut.
We are sitting in a bright green tent that is pitched at the side of a busy street in central London. We are surrounded by buzzing, trendy eateries where business people spend their lunch breaks, or stage high-powered meetings.
Jarringly, the tent is covered in crucifixes. The name ‘Jesus’ is scrawled across it with a marker pen. For a while I sit and watch the passing crowds react to it.
A group of Spanish teenagers stop to read the information that Rahim has put in a plastic wallet on the side of the tent. It explains how he is on a hunger strike in support of Pastor Youcef Nadakhani who is currently awaiting execution in Iran.
Others pass the tent without a second glance. Some look for just a moment. Often an expression of fear or disgust plays like a shadow over their faces as they hurriedly absorb the scene.
Would their reaction be any different, I wonder, if the tent had a CND logo on the side?
The crucifix has become, for some people, a symbol of irrationality and even insanity – doubly so when daubed on a tatty tent at the side of the road.
The passion and intensity that the story of a Galilean’s execution two thousand years ago still arouses in people like Rahim, is interpreted by many as the sign of a disturbing psychosis. Once the old tale was insisted upon by the powerful, but now it seems merely a magnet for the mentally unstable.
If those who hold such opinions would put their head inside the bright green tent, as I am doing, then certainly they might have their fears confirmed, for greeting them would be the mournful visage of Rahim.
They would note his sunken eyes, observe his skin, pale from hunger, and then there would be a double-take as they register that his lips are sewn together with wire.
Despite his mouth, Rahim can speak a little. Not that this helps our efforts to communicate, for his English is basic, and my Persian non-existent. Somehow though, with a combination of gesture and drawing and writing, I find out how his life’s story has led him to be in this tent at the side of the road.
He spoke about his conversion to Christianity, about Nadakhani’s house church in the town of Rasht. He spoke about Christianity in Iran and the persecution that many Iranian Christians face.
Although Christianity is traditionally protected under Islamic law, apostasy – changing your faith in Iran is treasonable. Simply practising Christianity carries the whiff of sedition. It has the flavour of Iran’s enemies. Being openly Christian is like proclaiming your new-found enthusiasm for Communism in McCarthy era America: not technically illegal, unless you were a Muslim before, but provocative to an array of paranoid state institutions.
Nadakhani for instance had asked if his children could be exempted from Islamic education because they are Christian. The next thing you know he is in a notorious jail for political prisoners, and after being held without charge for four years he is tried for apostasy and sentenced to hanging.
Nadakhani’s church was part of a fast-growing array of Protestant churches in Iran, most of them in houses and basements.
Evangelical organisation Elam, run by a group of Iranian church leaders in Britain, say that conservative estimates put the total number of Christians in Iran at 100,000.
Despite many reports to the contrary, Nadakhani is not a mainstream evangelical. He is what is known as a ‘Jesus Only Christian’, a group who reject the notion of the Christian Trinity in favour of the idea that Jesus himself is God, Spirit, and man in one figure.
This may seem like a small innovation to some, but many mainstream Christians in America claim that the Jesus Only movement is a dangerous cult.
In Iran too, the group are not seen as true Christians by many. Iranian Christian news agency Mohabat News published an article by evangelical Pastor Pooyan Mehrshahi that complained that ‘anti-Trinitarian cult teachers’ like Nadakhani had been ‘militant in their proselytising and recruiting of individuals.’
And furthermore that ‘the cult has caused untold damage to the cause of the gospel in Iran.’
However, not all Iranian ministers take such a sectarian perspective. A spokesman for Elam,Tom Hawksley, commented last week: ‘When someone is under a death threat, it is not the time for other Christians to accuse him of heresy.
‘Strictly speaking he is a heretic. But also he’s suffered for the name of Jesus, and what has happened to him could have happened to any Trinitarian Christian. So it’s a matter of solidarity.’
He then added humbly, ‘We see through a glass dimly.’
Although the Nadakhani case received some attention last year, the story of a man starving himself at the side of the road has failed to pique the interest of even local media, let alone the national news.
Rahim is of course seeking to draw attention to the plight of his old Pastor the kind of international response that Sakineh Ashtiani’s story elicited, and that rescued her from a sentence of death by stoning.
Ironically then, only an Iranian satellite TV channel has reported on Rahim’s vivid protest in the streets of London.
They presented his strike positively he tells me, and highlighted Nadakhani’s fate. Rahim says he is sure that his family have seen him on satellite TV.
When I ask about them, he says that he knows his parents are very worried.
He also has a family of his own: a wife and a child. They are separated. I wonder what the story is, was it to do with his conversion? But Rahim cannot speak any longer. He must rest. He is obviously very weak. You cannot help but be worried for him. Will he die here in this tent?
What has led him here, really? Does he have nothing to live for? Does he want to get back at his ex-country? His ex-wife maybe? Or is he just trying to save his friend’s life?
The reason Rahim himself gives is his faith. He is taking the extreme action demanded by the love of his friend, and the love of God.
Rahim is prepared to die fighting just one of many small battles for religious freedom in his country.
If no-one listens, then he will be a martyr. He is following his Lord in a denial of everything. Choosing faith over life itself.
When I arrive, the first thing Rahim does is to take my hand. He sits there in his tent with his eyes shut, holding my hand for a long time, and swaying.
I don’t know if he is praying, reading my mind, or simply sleeping sitting up. His hand is large and warm.
I am nervous, I play with my phone. Then I feel embarrassed as a well-dressed couple pass by, staring accusingly at the strange little scene. Finally I look back at Rahim, and suddenly I am touched. Here is someone who is doing something urgent and timeless. And he is holding my hand with a respectful seriousness.
When I came looking for Rahim I knew I would describe him as brave. I had sharpened words in preparation for writing this article: courageous image I might say, or plucky Rahim, 35, and then I would portray his bold, striking protest.
But now that I see his bravery up close, it is frightening.
It is indeed very close to insanity. Maybe he is insane. He is certainly not rational. Or is he? Isn’t it actually rational to give everything you have, even your life, for a cause so great? ‘Greater love has no man than that he lay down his life for his friend’, it says in the Bible.
I want to save him from his bravery. Sure, he is fighting injustice, but what is the chance he will change things in Iran?
He is taking on the world. They say faith can move mountains. I hope it can, if only for Rahim’s sake.