SAT-7 PARS presenter Rozita Hovsepian comes from a Christian family that has long played a prominent part in the growth of the Iranian Church. She tells us about the family life that shaped her and recalls the day she heard God’s call to ministry – at the funeral of her murdered uncle.
Newly-weds Rozita and Michael arrived at passport control in Tehran airport never expecting what was about to happen.
Iran-born Rozita and her British aid worker husband had just returned from the UK. They had made a successful visit to the Iranian embassy in London to legally certify their church marriage. It was something that Tehran authorities had mysteriously declined to do even though the couple had married in Iran.
But now, at the control desk, Michael was told he was on a blacklist. Despite holding a valid visa and work permit, he would not be allowed back into the country. Michael was deported immediately. His shocked wife was left to spend the next three months vainly visiting government departments to get the decision overturned.
“In the end,” Rozita says, “There was nothing for it but to leave Iran and join Michael here in the UK in January 2003. We still don’t know the reason for the action the authorities took, but we suspect it is to do with my family’s Christian work.”
In fact, the influence of this one Christian family has been remarkable. And today Rozita plays a part in it, including as a host of SAT-7 PARS programmes like her latest series, New Identity. The series is mainly aimed at women, sharing the Gospel with them and using biblical teaching and psychological insights to help them discover the fulness of life God wants for them.
Unlike the vast majority of Iranians, Rozita was privileged to learn of a loving God from her earliest days.
“I was born into a Christian home and my parents were serving at a church in Esfahan,” she explains. “When I was two, we moved to the north-western city of Urmia for my parents to take up a pastorate. Ten years later we began many years in Tehran’s Assemblies of God church where my father was a pastor, later to become the Superintendent of the AOG churches in Iran.
“So I grew up in a strongly Christian family that was active in serving the Lord. From the very beginning a Christian understanding of the world took shape in us which was based on the teaching of God’s Word.”
“As our parents were so active in the Lord’s service they served as patterns for us, showing us how we should worship and serve God. Seeing their love for God was a great influence on us as their children and so, as we grew older, we too began to serve the Lord.”
Rozita gave her life to Christ, at fourteen, praying with her father as she made her personal commitment to follow Jesus. It was an age at which she was “ready to do so with dedication and seriousness”, she says.
Her schooling was in Armenian schools where the other students were Armenians and Christians, so she didn’t face the problems that Muslim-background Christians would experience. Surprisingly, the biggest problem was when she wanted to invite Armenian friends to come to her church.
Her parents knew that their calling was not only to Armenians but to Persian speakers. In fact, around 90 per cent of their congregation were people from Muslim backgrounds. But just as Jesus’ first disciples struggled to grasp that the Good News was not only for Jews, many of Rozita’s Armenian friends could not understand that the Gospel is for other Iranians who don’t have their Christian heritage. Some weren’t happy to attend a mixed congregation. “My friends said that Christianity was for Armenians: how could we have people coming from Islam to Christianity?”
The active outreach of her parents’ church to majority Persian speakers also attracted government surveillance. By the time she was 12, the family had moved to Tehran where her father was now pastor of the central AOG church. There he was often summoned by the security forces and the family received numerous threatening phone calls. “The security apparatus took a lot of interest in our family,” Rozita recalls.
She herself became increasingly involved in ministry. “I had a burden for providing good teaching especially on core Christian teaching for young Muslim-background women who had come to Christianity,” Rozita explains.
Like others in her family, she also developed her musical gifts, playing keyboards and leading in worship. Then at 18, she found herself at a crossroads, and prayed for God to show her how He wanted her to serve.
Tragedy and calling
The answer came after tragedy. Rozita’s uncle, Bishop Haik Hovsepian, was Chairman of the Council of Protestant Ministers and had led international protests against the death sentence of fellow minister Mehdi Dibaj. In January 1994 Haik was abducted and photographs of his murdered body were released to the family days later.
Rozita remembers at his funeral, looking at the open coffin: “I sensed a calling as God seemed to be saying: ‘I want you to continue your uncle’s work and serve me.’
“There have been few times that I have so tangibly heard the Holy Spirit speak within me, and this was one of those occasions. I sensed that God was putting it on my heart to study God’s Word and theology in order to serve the Lord.”
Rozita followed this call, first studying theology and then spending time in the UK working with Elam Ministries, a Christian organisation dedicated to sharing the Gospel and equipping Persian believers. She returned to Iran in the late 1990s to teach the Bible to young men and women at the AOG church in Tehran.
Serving from the UK
Having to relocate to the UK after her husband’s deportation in 2003 did not halt Rozita’s service to the Iranian Church. Initially she worked for another Iranian organisation, 222 Ministries, and then served as Iran region Project Officer for Release International. Out of her burden for women in Iran, she instigated conferences for women to travel from Iran to neighbouring Turkey where they could receive Christian training.
Such opportunities became even more important as government pressure intensified on the few Evangelical churches in Iran that continued to serve Persian speakers. By 2013, the majority, including Rozita’s former church, had been closed by the security services.
This was when Rozita was invited to become a presenter on SAT-7. SAT-7 PARS, the network’s Persian language channel, has one of its studios in North London. There, Rozita began to play an important role in programmes that focus on family and social issues and others that address theological topics.
Her latest series is New Identity. It’s a programme she is passionate about. “In today’s Persian societies, there are so many instances where a woman’s value and identity has been lost or is undermined,” she says. “Even those who come to Christ do not always grasp that in Christ they are able to have a new identity and a new beginning.
“In Iranian society, the identity of women is tied up in their relationship with their father or husband. When they come to Christ they don’t realise that they can have a new identity that has nothing to do with their relationship with their father, husband or even their children. Coming to Christ means they become daughters of their Heavenly Father.”
New Identity offers viewers the chance to begin this relationship through sharing the Gospel with them and helping them to discover their true identity and worth in Him.
Rozita and her co-host, Mansoureh Eliasi, use the examples of women from the Bible and from the contemporary Persian Church to inspire their viewers. And, recognising the emotional, physical and psychological pain many women in the Persian world have suffered, they draw on biblical teaching and psychology.
The subject of a recent episode was domestic abuse. Rozita and Mansoureh stressed how wrong these situations are. They also shared that if women are abused by their husbands, they should not feel it is wrong to seek separation.
One response showed the benefit of this sensitive pastoral advice. A viewer messaged to say, “I always felt that I should not have agreed to divorce my husband, and I felt I had gone against God’s command. But thanks to your programme, I am free of this guilt because I was subjected to so much abuse in my marriage by my husband.”
Another episode focused on Christian worship and featured Eugenie, a worship leader. A 25-year-old woman was one of several viewers to stress its importance when we face crises. She said, “Going through the loss of my sister to cancer, my father’s heart attack and other things that I have suffered, I found that the Lord lifted me up through worship. I believe with all my heart and it has been my experience that worshipping the Lord can break the walls of despondency and hopelessness. In worship the Holy Spirit works powerfully and brings comfort.”
The challenges experienced by Persian people since Rozita began life in a deeply Christian home in Esfahan have not lessened. Poverty and hardship is affecting millions and the repression of Christians and other minorities continues.
But “God’s word is not chained” (2 Timothy 2:9) and the thirst for the Good News in Iran remains. Please pray for Rozita and for all who offer them the water of life (John 4:14) that only Christ can give them.
Interview: Omeed Jouyandé; article: Lindsay Shaw