Rector’s Ramblings: Pray for the people of Iran, that they may be free

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

I hope that you will join me in praying for the people of Iran (formerly Persia), that they may be freed from the oppression they have experienced under the theocratic dictatorship of the Ayatollahs since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

If you are not already aware of the context of this request, this is the second week of massive protests throughout Iran – spearheaded by women, but including both women and men – following the death of a 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian woman named Mahsa Amini, who died in police custody – reportedly as a result of her brutal treatment by the “Guidance Patrol,” the morality police of Iran’s Law Enforcement Command, after they arrested Amini for not wearing the hijab in accordance with government standards.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) states on its website that “Police reportedly beat her and took her to Vozara Police Station. Once she arrived to the police station, she was reportedly beaten again and later transferred to a hospital after suffering a heart attack or stroke. She reportedly fell into a coma. On September 16, 2022, Amini passed away in the hospital.”

“CCTV footage released by Iran’s state media showed Mahsa Amini collapsing at a ‘re-education’ center where she was taken by the morality police to receive ‘guidance’ on her attire,” according to CNN. “Her death has sparked an outpouring of anger that has snowballed to include issues ranging from freedoms in the Islamic Republic to the crippling economic impacts of sanctions. Protests and deadly clashes with police have broken out in towns and cities across Iran, despite authorities’ attempts to curb the spread of demonstrations through internet blackouts.”

And the Facebook page “My Stealthy Freedom,” dedicated to women who have chosen – stealthily, until now – to remove the hijab, quotes Iranian activist Masih Alinejad, speaking outside the UN in New York: “Women of Iran are risking their lives, they are facing guns and bullets but they are not just fighting against compulsory hijab, they are fighting to say no to the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

By latest reports, dozens of protesters have been killed by the authorities of the Islamic Republic and their paramilitaries, but it has not slowed down the protests. Instead, they seem to be building. Amini, it seems, has become the symbolic center, the proximate cause, of a frustration in Iran which has been simmering just below the boil (and occasionally breaking into a boil) for years.

The protesters are chanting, among other things, “this is the year of blood!” ~ and that seems to be increasingly the case. Dozens have been killed, but that has not slowed down the protests one bit. Young Iranian women are walking the streets of Tehran without hijabs, despite the potentially life-threatening consequences of such actions. One analyst, of Iranian heritage, comments that

“Something fundamental has changed [in Iran]… This younger generation of Iranians – you know, they’ve lived their whole life in a securitized state, a crumbling economy, a country isolated from the world, and they’ve had enough! These protests are shaking the very foundations of the Islamic Republic.”

It would be so wonderful if they could take down the Ayatollahs, after all these years! I will never forget the 1979 hostage crisis, of course. But nor will I forget working with “Ray” at Mama Illardos Pizzaria, ten years later: most people figured his name was Raymond, but it was actually Reza; he was an Iranian who had been studying engineering at a university in the U.S. when the Islamic Revolution came.

Because his family in Iran had supported the Shah, he could not return home. And because he was Iranian, he could not find work as an engineer here in the U.S., despite his degree. So he was working at a pizzaria. He was a great guy, with a great attitude, a wife and (if I recall correctly) two kids, who had made a decent life for himself but he was always stuck in a kind of permanent limbo. He taught me a few words of Farsi, including how to say “How are you doing?” and how to respond.

Nor will I forget the young Iranian girl who was one of my sixth-grade students, when I was teaching at the Outdoor School in Carroll County, Maryland – she had moved here with her parents several years before, I never found out why – and her radiant smile when I greeted her in Farsi. She understood that that was about all I could say in Farsi, but she appreciated that I’d made the effort. How many times had an American greeted her in her own language?

Iran, you may recall, is the modern name for what used to be known – for millennia! – as Persia. The founder of the Achaemenid Empire and king of Persia from 559-530 BC was Cyrus the Great, who was hailed in the Old Testament as “Cyrus the Messiah” (Anointed One of God) for having conquered the Babylonian Empire and liberating the Jews from the Babylonian Captivity. A later Persian King, Darius the Great, who ruled from 521 to 486 BC, was also a friend of the Jews, supporting the rebuilding of the Temple at Jerusalem.

Furthermore, it is likely that the Wise Men, also known as “Magi,” who visited the infant Jesus, bringing gifts of gold (representing kingship), frankincense (representing priesthood), and myrrh (representing a sacrificial death), and “departed by another way” to avoid informing King Herod of the location of the child, were Persian; if so, they were likely part of a priestly caste that practiced the Zoroastrian religion, and were (like other comparable groups in other Indo-European civilizations) also administrators and scholars of natural philosophy, including both astronomy and astrology.

The Islamization of Iran occurred as a result of the Muslim conquest of Persia in 633-654 AD. It was a gradual process by which Islam was initially rejected but was eventually accepted by the majority of the population. Nonetheless, Iranians have maintained a number of pre-Islamic traditions, including their language and many aspects of their culture; and there remains a sense among many that Islam is a foreign religion, imposed upon them by outsiders.

And as frustration with the Islamic Republic grows among many Iranians, so does frustration with the Islamic religion. I have heard from various sources that while there is an obvious interest in returning to the ancient Zoroastrian religion among those who are coming to dislike Islam, there is also a growing interest in Christianity among many. If the Islamic Republic were to collapse, obviously this would open opportunities for evangelism in Iran which do not presently exist.

However, that is not my primary or immediate reason for desiring prayers for the people of Iran, although it is certainly part of it. My chief concern is that the brave and, for the most part, good, decent, and honourable people of Iran may be protected from further harm, and will have the opportunity, and the ability, to wrest back their freedom from the repression of the Ayatollahs and their henchmen, and restore their individual and collective dignity, and social and political self-determination.

And if, by God’s grace, many of them are illuminated by the light of Christ – which would, in a sense, fulfill the promise of which Zoroastrianism was a foreshadowing – so much the better! May God grant it, and may He, in His mercy, bless and protect those who are struggling for freedom and dignity.

Faithfully yours in Christ,

Fr. Tom Harbold

ALMIGHTY God, our heavenly Father, guide, we beseech thee, the Nations of the world into the way of justice and truth, and establish among them that peace which is the fruit of righteousness, that they may become the Kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

O GOD, who hast made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on the face of the whole earth, and didst send thy blessed Son to preach peace to them that are far off and to them that are nigh; Grant that all men everywhere may seek after thee and find thee. Bring the nations into thy fold, pour out thy Spirit upon all flesh, and hasten thy kingdom; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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