A SAT-7 series is producing new worship songs for the suffering Iranian Church – written by a martyr’s son in collaboration with Iranian Christian refugees in Turkey.
Gilbert Hovsepian was only 17 when his father, Revd Haik Hovsepian Mehr, the President of the Council of Protestant Churches in Iran and a courageous spokesman for freedom of religion, was kidnapped and murdered in 1994. Gilbert’s uncle, Revd Edward Hovsepian, took over leadership of the churches, but the persecution did not stop. Five years later, the family left Iran and found refuge in the West; Gilbert’s family in the USA and his uncle’s in the UK.
At no point, however, did persecution or migration halt the family’s passionate commitment to Christ or to the Iranian Church. From the UK, Edward continued as superintendent of a network of churches in the UK and Europe, using media and visits to the Middle East to continue teaching believers from Iran. Rosita, one of his daughters, presents live programmes on SAT-7 PARS, where other family members have also served as key team members. Gilbert’s brother, Joseph, produces teaching and worship programmes, many of which air on SAT-7, as does Gilbert, a musician, Bible teacher and author of over 100 Persian worship songs.
His latest programme, now in a second series, is Songwriting with Gilbert. In the course of each half-hour episode Gilbert joins Iranian musician co-writers to discuss the topic of a new worship song and develop it together. Over the two series, around 30 Iranian Christians have joined him in the creative process of writing new songs for a Christian community that has been forced underground by the authorities.
The Iranian Church is crying out for good worship songs, Gilbert says, since its historic songbook has been limited to those translated from western songs brought by missionaries prior to the 1979 Iranian revolution, and those written by the first generation of Iranian church leaders including Gilbert’s father.
“The Iranian Church is desperate for more songs; songs that are their own and not borrowed or copied,” he says. In the last 20 years or so Gilbert and others have been writing new songs to reflect the minor keys and Persian style of music, as well as the experience of Iranian believers.
Christian converts in Iran are forbidden to meet and the few Armenian and Assyrian Christian congregations permitted are barred from worshipping in the Persian language. Christians who meet and evangelise face losing their jobs, punitive fines, jail sentences and exile. It is a Church that truly knows what it is to “share in the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings” (Philippians 3:10).
Gilbert said, “These songs will minister to Iranians in a very deep way as most Iranian Christians live in such circumstances in Iran, or abroad in Turkey, or even parts of Europe or Australia. For some the hardship is financial and for others it’s being far from family.”
The first series of Songwriting with Gilbert was filmed with Iranians now living in the USA, Germany and Australia. Here is an excerpt from an episode in which he collaborates with worship leaders Mousa and Milad.
All of Gilbert’s collaborators in the second series have fled their homeland recently and are living as refugees in Turkey.
“All of the co-writers were refugees in hard circumstances,” he explains. “So when we talked about the topic to write a song about, all were related to hardship and troubles. Thirteen beautiful songs were written, highlighting how there are troubles in the world but we fix our eyes upon Jesus and worship Him regardless of our circumstances.”
Many of the songwriters have undergone powerful transformations. Five or six were “fanatical” in their previous faith, Gilbert says. One had been a sorcerer for ten years, and another had to leave Iran or be killed. He bears the scars of severe beating by his father-in-law because of his new faith, and has not seen his daughter for six years.
The two co-writers in another episode are children of Pastor Hossein Soodmand, who, in 1990 was the last church leader to be executed for “apostasy” in Iran.
Scripture and experience
The starting point for the songs in the series are personal experience seen through the lens of Scripture. Gilbert describes them as “melodised teachings for church” and, because Middle Easterners are “heart and not mind-based”, they are easier than sermons for people to listen to, learn from, and be encouraged in their spiritual growth.
It’s a series that has also had a deep impact on Gilbert himself. “I have done TV ministry for 20 years or so, but this songwriting programme has become my favourite,” he confides. “The reasons are passion, need and time. I have a passion for writing songs, and new good songs are the need of the Iranian Church. Other programmes will fade after a year or so, but the songs we write will last far longer.”