When the Bishop of Loughborough was 13-years-old, her brother was murdered for being a Christian. Born and raised in Iran, she was forced to flee her homeland in 1980 on the grounds of religious persecution – a story that is all too familiar for many Iranian Christians.
Now, as the ordained Bishop of Loughborough, the Rt Revd Guli Francis-Dehqani is leading the Church of England’s growing community of Iranians who have found a home in the Anglican church.
This unprecedented shift was yesterday marked with a “historical” service at Wakefield Cathedral in Yorkshire, where the Holy Communion scripture was delivered in Persian for the first time to cater for the growing – yet traditionally unusual – new Anglican congregation.
With the Cathedral packed full of 450 Persian Christians from parishes all over the UK, Rev Francis-Dehqani led the inaugural service, delivered in both Farsi and English.
“This translated service is hugely significant in terms of the life of the Church of England,” Rev Francis-Dehqani told The Telegraph.
“We are finding that many Iranians are coming to be baptised and be part of the Church. That’s a really joyful thing for us to celebrate.
“I came this country during the very early stages of the revolution back in Iran. We found ourselves in England thinking we would be here for a few weeks or months. But as it turned out, I was unable to return.
“It is a very emotional day for me. It’s the first time I have ever led a service in Persian so that in itself, surrounded by so many Iranians, makes it very much feel like it is the start of something new.”
Little is known about what is causing the seismic shift and there is likely strong scepticism among many Anglicans – particularly after hundreds of migrants have attempted to cross the English Channel in the past six months, with many citing religious persecution as a reason.
Furthermore, the Church does not have official figures on how many Iranians have converted. However, over the past three years 75 churches across the country have requested help from senior Bishops due to the increasing number of Persians regularly turning up for Sunday service.
Two new members of the Church’s congregation, Mohsen, 28, and Sara Chinaveh, 26, converted to the faith from Islam in 2015 in their hometown of Shiraz, southern Iran. They were forced to flee after the church they attended in secret was discovered by the government.
“Within one week, everything we built over 28 years was destroyed,” Mr Chinaveh said.
“We had to be very secret when we were practising Christianity in Iran. It’s not part of the rules that you can just change your religion. The government will arrest you.
“It wasn’t a nice way to live at all, because we should have the right to do it the way we want – not in secret. Why can’t people choose their way? From the day we were born the Government told us we were Muslim and that was it.”
The Bishop of Bradford, the Rt Revd Toby Howarth, an Islamic scholar who also participated in yesterday’s service, believes that Persians’ longstanding Christian roots could help explain what is encouraging so many to join the Church.
He said: “Persian people have a really long, proud history that goes way back before Islam. So you can be a strong Persian and a Christian, even though Iran is a Muslim country.
“Iranian conversions are happening right across all the Christian churches. It has been going on for quite a long time and it is happening across the world.”