BURBANK, Calif. Iranian-born ministry leader and filmmaker Joseph Hovsepian knows well the cost some have paid for proclaiming the Christian faith among Islamic people.
His father, Haik Hovsepian, who was a leader among Christian churches in Iran, disappeared from the streets of Tehran on Jan. 19, 1994. Iranian authorities notified the family of his death nearly two weeks later. He had been stabbed in the chest 26 times.
More than 14 years later, Hovsepian continues keeping his father's legacy alive with Burbank-based Hovsepian Ministries. Along with his mother and other family members, the Hovsepians are committed to giving their testimony, "a journey starting with persecution, loss and hatred towards Muslims, that ends with forgiveness, love and interceding for the enemies."
The ministry's mission is to evangelize and share the love of Christ with the Farsi speaking world as well as encouraging Christians by sharing the family's story. However, it is the Muslim outreach that requires some specific cultural knowledge and training, Hovsepian, 34, said.
"The major sensitivity to be aware of is that they are coming from the religion of Islam," Hovsepian said. "There are some very strong cultural and belief attachments. To put down all those and do a U-turn for Christ requires a big courage."
Muslims who have embraced Christianity have to cope with major changes to their lives, he said.
"It requires a commitment because the aftermath is dealing with family members, relatives, and so on," he said. "It affects every aspect of your life."
In addition to family members giving personal testimony, Hovsepian and his brother, Andre, have produced a documentary film about their father's plight, "A Cry From Iran." The film portrays how Haik Hovsepian did not succumb to government pressure and chose instead to "tell the world" about the struggles of Iranian Christians.
Pursuing the faith
Haik became the superintendent of Assemblies of God churches in Iran in 1982, and later he was the representative of all Protestant churches in Iran.
"If we go to jail or die for our faith, we want the whole Christian world to know what is happening to their brothers and sisters," read a quote attributed to Haik on the ministry's Web site. His efforts reached a climax in 1991 when Iran's church received news of Pastor Hosein Soodmand's martyrdom in the city of Mashhad. In 1993, Haik was also affected by the news of an execution order of Pastor Mehdi Dibadj, a convert from Islam, who was put in prison for almost 10 years.
Dibadj was released Jan. 16, 1994 just days before his planned execution date. The Hovsepians say the release was prompted by Haik's diligent work at drawing attention to the human rights and religious freedom violations of Christians in Iran.
Three days after Dibadj's release, Haik was missing.
Joseph Hovsepian was 20 years old and serving in the Iranian military when his father died. Two years later, he began gathering existing film tape and documents about his dad. It was a familiar task for the man who, as a teen, became interested in film production and music.
Three years ago, the making of "A Cry From Iran" started in earnest with the help of Open Doors ministry. The film, released last summer, has won numerous awards at film competitions and is available for viewings at churches, theaters and universities.
While the Hovsepian brothers are proud of the film tribute to their father, the ministry's primary medium is TV, with about 60 percent of ministry time dedicated to TV programs. Hovsepian said a majority of Iranians have access to satellite television, where they hear the message of salvation, learn how to grow in their faith, and access Bible studies.
"A very large number of Christians are being nourished by satellite TV," he said. "The church has gone beyond and is not limited to the four walls of a classic church building."
Their programming includes a youth-oriented television show that is broadcast via satellite to Iran and other Persian-speaking countries.
Although pleased by the development of Christianity in Iran, Hovsepian said he is reluctant to talk about specific numbers out of concern for government retaliation.
"Let me say that the number of Iranians coming to faith is beyond what my dad had ever dreamed about," Hovsepian said.
The Iranian-Christian warned Americans about misperceptions about his country, especially under the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
"What the media introduces to us from Iran is not a correct representation of the Iranian population," he said. "You can't judge a nation by its government.
"Iranians are one of the best nations for hospitality, love and thirst for a true God," he said. "They are a nation searching for the God of love. They are one of the nations where its people are coming to Christ in larger numbers in comparison to other countries."