In Exmouth Market in central London, there is a blue tent by the side of the road. Look closer and you will see that the side of the tent is daubed with the words “Jesus, help me”. Crowds bustle by on their way to and from work. But if you stuck your head inside, you would be greeted by the earnest face of Abdul Rahim Dehdozorgi.
Dehdozorgi has not eaten for more than 30 days. He is hungry. His movements are slow and deliberate. If you doubt his resolve, then look closely at his lips. They are sewn together with fishing wire.
Dehdozorgi’s hunger strike is in support of his old pastor in Iran, an evangelical named Youcef Nadarkhani who was condemned to death by hanging in 2010. His crime? Apostasy – leaving the religion of Islam for another.
Christianity is protected by Islamic law, and even though apostasy is a crime in sharia, it is not actually illegal in Iran. However, it can be punished by a court of law under the auspices of upholding a religious ruling.
Nadarkhani argued in his trial that he had never been a Muslim, and thus could not be an apostate. The fact is that practising Christianity, especially international Protestantism, is often viewed as seditious in Iran. Proselytising for a religion that holds so much sway in the west is perhaps akin to advertising communist meetings in McCarthy-era America.
Nadarkhani was held for four years in a notorious jail for political prisoners. He was given many chances to renounce his faith, but he steadfastly refused. Dehdozorgi described Nadarkhani’s house church to me, the joy he had found there, and the persecution they faced. He claimed he could no longer practise Christianity safely in Iran.
The form of Christianity to which Nadarkhani converted Dehdozorgi is not uncontroversial. The “Jesus Only” movement, that rejects the notion of the trinity for a unified theology of Christ, is seen as a cult by many other Christians. Even Iranian Christian news agency Mohabat News published an article complaining that “the cult has caused untold damage to the cause of the gospel in Iran”.
Whether his interpretation of Christ is orthodox or heretical, Dehdozorgi is clearly prepared to sacrifice the only thing he has left, his life, for his God. It is faith that made Dehdozorgi brave, but it is the British Home Office that has ensured he has nothing to lose. He is seeking asylum here and in the UK it is illegal for asylum seekers to work while their cases are being processed. Perhaps it is hoped that destitution will convince refugees to go home. Many, like Dehdozorgi, are simply unable to go home. He was living on the streets for more than three years before he began his hunger strike.
The story has a precedent. In 2011 two Iranian brothers sat in a tent in central London and declared a hunger strike, sewing their lips together to display their resolve. They were in national papers and on television after a week.
Dehdozorgi, however, has been largely ignored by the papers. Why? I could offer a tentative answer: the 2011 strike was secular, squarely aimed at the Border Agency. Dehdozorgi’s protest is clearly religious. Many people will read the religious symbolism on the side of his tent as a mark of insanity.
The intensity that the story of a 2,000-year-old execution arouses in people like Dehdozorgi is interpreted by some as dangerous irrationality. Even to those of us who disagree, Dehdozorgi’s striking bravery is disturbing; perhaps he is determined to martyr himself here, as London grinds past without a second glance.
Passers-by quicken their pace in the effort to scrub his mournful image from their field of vision. The Iranian government is likely to do the same. Dehdozorgi’s eyes are glazed with tiredness, but he is determined. He is prepared to die fighting this small battle for religious freedom in his country, whether this world pays him any mind or not.