By Laura O’Callaghan
December 7, 2021
The Bishop of Chelmsford has used her maiden speech in Britain’s House of Lords to detail the “intense persecution” she and her Christian family suffered during Iran’s Islamic Revolution in the late 1970s.
The Rt Rev Guli Francis-Dehqani told the Lords how her brother was fatally shot and her father jailed during a period of “unrest and chaos” in their native country.
The bishop, who oversees the Church of England diocese covering east London and Essex, fled Iran as a teenager with her family, who came to Britain as refugees.
She made her address to members of the upper chamber of Britain’s legislature during a debate on the fate of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a dual Iranian-British citizen who has been detained in Iran since 2016.
Bishop Guli, who comes from a family of Christian converts, opened up about the “traumatic experiences” and “sting of injustice” she and her church community endured in the uprising which toppled Iran’s royal family.
“Our small community was hit hard when the revolution ushered in a period of unrest and chaos, during which the church experienced a season of intense persecution,” she told the Lords.
“Properties were confiscated, financial assets frozen, one of our clergy was murdered in his study and my father, who was by then Bishop of the Church in Iran, was briefly imprisoned before an attack on his life in which he survived but my mother was injured.
“In May 1980, my 24-year-old brother had his car ambushed on his way home from work. Two men got in next to him and after a brief conversation witnessed by a passer-by, he was shot in the head and died instantly.
“No arrests were ever made, no court case followed, no explanation was offered for his murder. It was soon after this that I found myself in this country, originally with refugee status and eventually as a British citizen.”
She went on to detail the “chilling experience of a hand covering that of my father’s as he went to pick up the phone while our home was being raided by the authorities”, a hand which she said had prevented him from calling for help while his house was being ransacked.
Despite having suffered such a harrowing ordeal in her younger years, Bishop Guli said she harbours no bitterness towards her “homeland or countryfolk”. Moreover, she said it is her desire to see Iranians of all faiths living in harmony.
Iran’s Christian minority has been subject to “government suspicion and hostility”, Human Rights Watch say. The group has said the government has demonstrated a “readiness to accept and even seek out Muslim converts”.
She said resolving the diplomatic row between London and Tehran over the detainment of Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe is of utmost importance and referred to the family as “innocent pawns in power struggles, which have nothing to do with them”.
A £400 million ($532m) debt that Britain owes Iran — relating to a cancelled order for 1,500 Chieftain tanks dating back to the 1970s — has been linked to the 43-year-old’s detention.
The Bishop of Chelmsford called on the UK to pay Iran the money. It is “not ransom money, it is a long standing obligation”, she said.
She said payment would send a powerful message to countries around the world that Britain acts with “integrity and decency, with honesty and trustworthiness”.
She said if the UK government paid the debt, Ms Naghari-Ratcliffe and other British-Iranian dual citizens detained by Tehran would be set free. There were “powers at play, which can affect change that could right this terrible wrong”, the bishop said.