Interview with Bishop Azad Marshall of Iran

The Church of England Newspaper. August 10

In an exclusive interview after his installation Bishop Azad Marshall spoke of his journey to faith and early years of ministry that had brought him to the situation of now being Bishop in Iran.

“My family background in Pakistan is Christian. I was a member of St Andrew’s Church in Lahore which had an evangelical ministry under Sidney Iggulden. He focused on young people. He led us to the Lord and discipled us. Members of our youth fellowship from that time are now giving leadership as General Secretary of the Pakistan Bible Society and former heads of Scripture Union and of the Pakistan Fellowship of Evangelical Students. Everyone in that group the Lord has called into ministry.

“The fellowship started a sending ministry but we were determined not to be dependent on outside help. We raised money and were the first sending organization from a Moslem country recorded in Operation World. I was the first to be sent by the group and came with a student minisrtryto Iran in 1976. Iran was the first country I ever visited outside Pakistan. I used to sell Christian books here in Tehran.

“I then went to do theological training at Romsey House Theological Training College in Cambridge and returned to St Andrew’s Lahore since they had been supporting me and I had covenanted to come back. With their blessing I started teaching and training sessions for the clergy. This led to ordination in the Church of Pakistan and appointment as the Priest of St Andrews for 6 years. It is still our family church as our daughter was married there at the beginning of this year.

In 1994, Bishop John Brown of Cyprus and the Gulf and the Moderator of the Church of Pakistan agreed that I be consecrated as Bishop in the Gulf for the Pakistan Urdu-speaking parishes.. I worked as associate bishop of the Province who then appointed me in 2004 as Episcopal Vicar-General of the Church of Iran.”

How do you see Inter-Faith Relations?

The Church needs to show that Christ is for the whole world, and therefore we serve people of all faiths. We cannot restrict Jesus to ourselves. We are there to serve. Out of our service comes relationships. There is no conflict between the desire to have inter-faith dialogue and to retain the integrity of the scripture and the Christian faith. The Christ we follow came for all as I said at the end of the service. Whatever relationships we have flow from that given.

What is the role of the Church in the Middle-East Peace Process?

The Church is often caught in the cross fire. The Church cannot be for one or for the other side. It is for Jesus, the prince of peace. So the church is to be a bridge, bringing the communities together.

Iran has often been demonized. The media often give negative representations of Iran. But Iran is no different from many other Islamic countries where human rights violations are much more blatant. There are for instance Muslim countries where women are not even allowed to drive, whereas you can see many women drivers in Tehran. Women are very visible in all walks of life and seventy per cent of the university students are female.

The media tend to pick and choose. Western vested interests play a great role. When people demonise Iran, they do not look at the wider picture. They compare Iran with countries where vested interests want to maintain good relations. So they fail to raise the very proper questions which should be asked. My hope is that the Church will play a role in balancing this picture.

We cannot always be harping on what happened almost thirty years ago. We must concentrate on the opportunity to build relationships with a population of 76 million, half of whom were born after the Revolution. We must demonstrate our great commitment and desire to build a relationship in dialogue and peace

Bishop Azad Marshall was installed as sixth Bishop in Iran in a multilingual and ceremony of many facets at St Pauls Church Tehran on Sunday August 5.

Over two hundred people attended the three hour service which was marked by outstanding singing in Farsi and English by the House of Worship and Messiah Worship Choir and orchestra. The Messiah choir led by Honiball Yousef  is the first  Christian professional choir in Iran. www.honiball.com. The congregation included Anglicans, members from the Armenian Orthodox and Armenian Evangelical Churches, the Assemblies of God,.Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and Muslims. Representatives from three embassies of Egypt, Pakistan and the United Kingdom were also present.  The Christian community in Iran is estimated to be 100,000, including Armenian Christians. The Anglican community has been very dispersed and its numbers hard to quantify.

The service, as other events this week, was also attended by Dr Sadighati, a senior official from the office of the President who spoke afterwards of the respect and freedom given to all religious minorities, including the freedom to change religion since the Government knows many Christians come from the Muslim community.

Bishop Michael Nazir Ali of Rochester, representing the Archbishop of Canterbury, preached to the congregation of Christians and Muslims on the eve of the Feast of Transfiguration of Jesus’ appearance on the Mountain. He preached first in Farsi drawing on Persian poets to explain the divinity of Jesus in familiar cultural terms. Continuing in English he said  “The glory of God is seen in the risen Jesus and also in the glory of men and women as they are meant to be but which we have lost through sin and rebellion. Jesus said: ” I when I am lifted up will draw everyone to myself.” As those who live the risen life we must see what we have to put off and what we have to put on. Our task is to seek such glory of Jesus.  His risen life is to be found in the Bible. His risen life helps us lose what hinders life. My hope is that Bishop Azad whose name means “free”  will free you to be followers of the risen Christ, and help you to  know what you have to put off and what to put on to live his risen life. ”

As part of the greetings from religious and civic leaders,  Ayatollah Dr Wazirie from the Council of Guidance began with giving respect to the great prophet Jesus Christ and his holy mother St Mary. He spoke warmly of religious tolerance.”When everyone praises God because they are happy they are linked with us. Anyone in suffering who asks God for help in the middle of the night is our brother. We feel great sympathy and closeness for everyone who believes God in his heart Those priests and bishops who are asking God for help in the middle of the night are paving the way for morality in society”. He quoted the verse from the Koran which speaks of Christians being the closest to the Muslims. Those attending hoped that the reality they experienced daily would match the words.

The Presiding Bishop of Jerusalem and the Middle East,  Mouneer Anis said: “Many countries in the Middle East are places where religions and civilizations came together. They speak now of a clash of civilizations. By the grace of God we want to return back to the origin with the civilizations of this region where civilizations came together for a better world and humanity.” The Archbishop of Canterbury also sent greetings, read by Bishop Paul Butler of Southampton: “The task of building relationships with government and religious leaders is an important element in the ministry to which you are called and we look forward to working with you in promoting deeper mutual understanding.”

At the close of the service Bishop Azad said “My Christ did not come for only Christians; my Christ is for the whole world. With your help and co-operation I will seek to serve both Muslims and Christians because Christ came to serve all.”
In an intriguing finale, as Bishop Marshall closed his final blessing on the City, Country and Diocese, the power failed and the modern church was plunged in darkness for a few minutes before lighting was restored and the reception could begin.

On the evening before the installation, all the visiting Bishops and Archbishops visited the mausoleum-shrine of Ayatollah Khomeini and laid a wreath. They were accorded a guard of honour and met with government officials. On the days following his installation Geo TV made a fly-on-the-wall documentary as Bishop Marshall met with Government and religious leaders. The bishops and guests also visited a Jewish synagogue for evening prayers and to meet the MP for the Jewish community of about 25,000 who date their time in Iran since the exile from Jerusalem in 597.  Dialogue meetings were also held with clerics from the Council of Guidance and with former president Ayatollah  Khatami. In receiving Bishop Marshall, Dr Khatami said  “This is your home”.

Presiding Bishop Mouneer Anis noted two especial features which characterised the installation events. There is a fig tree at the entrance of St Paul’s Church, which was full of fruit. And one of the songs the choir sung with power and passion was  “Jesus put this song into our hearts”.

The final day of the events in connection with the installation of the Bishop of Iran were marked by high-level meetings with leaders of Iran in state, culture and religion.

Tuesday August 7 began with a meeting of Bishop Azad Marshall, accompanied by the Presiding Bishop of Jerusalem and the Middle East Mouneer Anis and Bishop Michael Nazir Ali with the former President of Iran, Dr Khatami. Earlier in the year Dr Nazir Ali and Bishop Marshall had been at Lambeth Palace when the Archbishop of Canterbury hosted a visit from Dr Khatami and the latter visited the House of Lords.

The bishops assured Dr Khatami that Bishop Azad had committed himself as a servant of Christ to be a servant to all the people of Iran, regardless of their religion.

Bishop Michael Nazir Ali expressed appreciation for Dr Khatami’s focus in inter-faith dialogue on Stewardship of the Creation, the Dialogue of Civilisations and the Theology of Dialogue and hoped this could be developed. They also exchanged reflections on Persian poetry.

Dr Khatami noted that Iran was the site of the oldest church building in the world, and it had offered safety to Christians when they were being persecuted in the early centuries. Iran also welcomed Islam and has tried to develop a great Islamic civilization. The role of Christianity was very important in this.

The former president noted that Nietzche had proclaimed that God is dead, by which he meant that the thought of God is dead in the modern world. The new civilization has brought many achievements for humanity, but in it the thought of God has been forgotten. In its place has been put the super-man, the will to power. This has been expressed in the face of Hitler. Hitler is dead, but his spirit exists in war, terrorism and violation of people.

He continued that we dare to say that God is alive. It is our duty to vitalize the thought of God among humanity. We are sure that Christianity and Islam are trying to address the absence of the thought of God among us. The great task for all of us is to enable the people to be conscious of God’s presence again, a task in which we can all be together though we have differences in detail.

The most important dialogue in the dialogue of civilizations is the dialogue among religions.

Dr Khatami closed by saying “Emphatically I wish success to Bishop Azad. Bishop Azad, this is your home”

In the afternoon, Bishop Marshall and Bishop Nazir Ali were received by the Ministry of Guidance. The Minister explained how they saw the role of the Episcopal Church in Iran as being regulated by the laws of the land. The Minister explained that the Church was free as long as it lived according to these laws. It was not specified in detail what those laws covered. The minister also encouraged Bishop Marshall to think of Iran as his second home.

In the evening the Bishops took part in a bi-lateral dialogue at the Culture and Islamic Relations Organisation. Ayatollah Iraqi and Dr Wazirie, who had brought greetings at the installation, addressed the dialogue on the Vice-regency of Humanity in Creation., a topic suggested to them by Bishop Nazir-Ali. Bishop Marshall, Bishop Nazir Ali, Dr van Bijl and Canon Dr Chris Sugden contributed to a discussion which focused on the scriptures of Islam and Christianity in describing the human person as the representative (khalifa) or image (Genesis) of God. A fruitful discussion showed that the two terms were quite close and that when humanity was truly God’s steward they would be representing God as the divine attributes would be seen.

Today the former president of Iran, Dr Khatami received the newly installed Bishop in Iran, Azad Marshall along with Bishop Michael Nazir Ali of Rochester and the Presiding Bishop.We assured Dr Khatami that Bishop Azad had committed himself as a servant of Christ to be a servant to all the people of Iran, regardless of their religion. We had observed that pictures of Muslim Imams showed them with haloes around their heads in common with pictures of Christian saints. This suggests that Iran is a place where civilizations meet together – Christians, Jews and Muslims. It is our duty now to make this happen again.

Bishop Michael Nazir Ali expressed appreciation for Dr Khatami’s focus in inter-faith dialogue on Stewardship of the Creation, the Dialogue of Civilisations and the Theology of Dialogue and hoped this could be developed. They also exchanged reflections on Persian poetry.

Dr Khatami noted that Iran was the site of the oldest church building in the world, and it had offered safety to Christians when they were being persecuted in the early centuries. Iran also welcomed Islam and has tried to develop a great Islamic civilization. The role of Christianity was very important in this.

The former president noted that Nietzche had proclaimed that God is dead, by which he meant that the thought of God is dead in the modern world. The new civilization has brought many achievements for humanity, but in it the thought of God has been forgotten. In its place has been put the super-man, the will to power. This has been expressed in the face of Hitler. Hitler is dead, but his spirit exists in war, terrorism and violation of people.

He continued that we dare to say that God is alive. It is our duty to vitalize the thought of God among humanity. We are sure that Christianity and Islam are trying to address the absence of the thought of God among us. The great task for all of us is to fill the gap, a task in which we can all be together though we have differences in detail.

The most important dialogue in the dialogue of civilizations is the dialogue among religions.

Dr Khatami closed by saying “Emphatically I wish success to Bishop Azad. Bishop Azad, this is your home”

On behalf of the province of Jerusalem and the Middle East and the diocese of Iran we express our profound gratitude to Dr Khatami for his words and his welcome.

The Most Rev Mouneer Anis
Presiding Bishop of Jerusalem and the Middle East
Tehran

The House of Bishops of the Church of the Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East met in Iran on the occasion of the installation of Bishop Azad Marshall and issued the following communiqué.We the undersigned have met in Tehran. We were very pleased and rejoice in the election and installation of Bishop Azad Marshall as the 6th Bishop of the Diocese of Iran. We welcome him as a full member of the House of Bishops. We pray that the Lord will give him the wisdom and love he needs as he leads his diocese as well as Pakistani Christian Urdu-speaking parishes under his oversight in the Gulf.

We are very encouraged by the new spirit that we have observed in the church in Iran and also the openness and support of the Government of Iran to our church and also the keenness and desire of the Muslim religious leaders to start a dialogue with us in the province.

We also welcome the bishop elect of the Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf, the Rt Rev Michael Lewis and we look forward to his installation in the future.

We fully support the Bishop of Jerusalem, the Rt Rev Suheil Dawani for all his efforts to promote peace and reconciliation and inter-faith dialogue throughout his diocese especially in this critical time of conflicts. We also fully support him as he seeks the recognition of our church in Syria.

In view of the many challenges and opportunities of service that have arisen as a result of the changes in our province in the last twenty years, we also recognize the need for developing a common vision for our province and we are looking forward to discuss this in future provincial meetings.

We are committed to pray and support Archbishop Rowan Williams in keeping the unity of the Communion at this difficult time. We recognize the importance of maintaining our faith and the unity of the Church of Christ especially in this region where we face many challenges.

We accept and affirm the recommendation made by the Primates in their last meeting in Dar-es-Salaam and we fully endorse their communiqué.

We greet all the churches in the Anglican Communion in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, and in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit to the glory of God the Father.

Rt Rev Suheil Salman Dawani (Jerusalem)
Rt Rev Azad Marshall (Iran)
Most Rev Mouneer Hanna Anis (Egypt) Presiding Bishop

Tehran August 6 2007

To our beloved in the Lord, the Right Reverend Azad Marshall

It gives me great pleasure to be able to send you greetings through our dear brother Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali on this day of great joy and significance for the Diocese of Iran. As you assume your responsibilities as the sixth Anglican Bishop in Iran, be assured of our continued prayers, and those of countless Anglicans throughout the world, for the crucial mission of Christian witness you shall oversee.

You will know from our meetings in Pakistan and here at Lambeth Palace, that the affairs of the Anglican Church in Iran are regularly in our thoughts and prayers. Your efforts in restoring the diocesan structure to provide a solid foundation for the future have been particularly valued and it is encouraging to see the focus on raising up a team of co-workers bearing fruit. The task of building relationships with government and religious leaders is an important element in the ministry to which you are called and we look forward to working with you in promoting deeper mutual understanding.

In recalling some words of St Paul in his letter to the Hebrews (10:32-38) I wish upon you and your family, your fellow bishops in the Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East, the faithful of Iran and all those gathered to celebrate your installation in Tehran our Lord’s richest blessings.

Rowan Cantuar

Tomorrow is the Transfiguration. Now the feast is about to begin. We find that Jesus is so taken up in the life of God and the Father that God is seen to be shining in and through him. This is that glory that Moses was not able to see. It is now seen shining in and through Jesus.This glory is just a sign of something greater to come. Jesus already has been acknowledged as Messiah by Peter. Jesus has spoken of his suffering and death. The transfiguration is God’s assurance to him that whatever the suffering to come, the glory is to be revealed.

The glory seen in the risen Jesus is also the glory of men and women as they are meant to be but which we have lost through sin and rebellion

That is why Paul’s words in Colossians 3 in our other lesson all depend on the resurrection of Jesus. If we are raised with Jesus we are to set our hearts on things above where Christ is. We are to take off what is not desirable – including sexual immorality, evil desires and greed, which is called idolatry.

Jesus by his obedience has turned away the wrath of God from us and our rebellion and made us friends. Some things we have to put on – what are they? Compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. We are to bear with one another, and forgive each other. Above all put on love. The word cummerbund in the Persian translation is appropriate because it keeps all the clothes together.

The peace we have now has been achieved through the work of Christ. Then Paul urges that they should let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach one another in all wisdom. Jesus is God’s wisdom heard and seen by us. Jesus has been seen in glory. The glory of the crucified and risen Christ belong together.

Jesus said “I when I am lifted up will draw everyone to myself”. As those who live the risen life, we must see what we have to put off and what we have to put on. Our task is to seek such glory of Jesus. His risen life is to be found in the Bible. His risen life helps us lose what hinders life.

My hope is that Bishop Azad ( whose name means free) will free you to be followers of the risen Christ and help you to know what you have to put off and what to put on.

A statement from the Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East

We greet you in the name of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

We have gathered from around the Anglican Communion for the installation of Bishop Azad Marshall as the sixth Bishop in Iran.

We rejoice to find that the Anglican Episcopal Church in Iran has been active since the announcement of the appointment of Bishop Azad Marshall as vicar-general of the Diocese in Iran in 2004. Bishop Azad has focused his early work on regathering those of the Anglican community who had been dispersed over the last years. In particular he has been able to welcome and encourage clergy to begin taking public services of worship again in churches. All those whom we have met have spoken of Bishop Azad’s welcoming spirit.

The response of the Anglican community here was shown when representatives of each region in Iran, including Shiraz, Isfahan, Jolfa and Tehran, met in synod in Tehran and elected Bishop Azad as their Bishop by 15 votes to 1. Thus the people of Iran themselves have affirmed the discernment of the Province who nominated him as Diocesan Bishop in February 2007.

Bishop Azad has also built good relationships with the Muslim religious leaders in Iran, and specially with those in the Ministry of Religious Affairs. He joined with ex-President Khatmi in his visit to the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth Palace earlier this year. The Bishop is now involved in dialogue with the Islamic organizations. He is committed to enabling peace and reconciliation between the two faith communities.

The importance which the Islamic leadership and the Iranian Government attaches to the installation of Bishop Azad is shown by the the way in which the Presiding Bishop Mouneer Anis of Egypt was received on arrival at Tehran Airport by representatives of the Iranian Government and the Egyptian Ambassador.

We ask for your prayers for Bishop Marshall and his family as he faces many challenges. He will continue his responsibilities as Bishop of the Church of Pakistan in the Gulf. In Iran he will focus on restoring parishes and repairing church buildings that have been closed and deserted for many years. This will require significant financial investment.

With the openness of the Government and People of Iran there is hope that these church properties could be returned to the name of the Church in Iran once again.

The Installation will take place in St Luke’s Church, Tehran on Sunday August 5th at 5 p.m (1.30 p.m.GMT). Several Bishops from around the Anglican Communion have already arrived to take part, including Bishop Michael Nazir Ali of Rochester who is representing the Archbishop of Canterbury and who will be leading all the bishops of the Province and visiting Bishops when they meet Iraqi Ayatollah for a dialogue on the evening of August 6th, Archbishop John Chew (South East Asia), Bishop Suheil Dawani, Bishop of Jerusalem, Bishop Paul Butler of Southampton, Bishop Riah, former Bishop of Jerusalem,and a representative of the Bishop of Oxford.

We request your prayers for the installation service.

Presiding Bishop Mouneer Anis, Presiding Bishop of Jerusalem and the Middle East.