More than 40 years after the tragedy, their memories of Karen, Debbie, and Mark are as poignant as ever. But this is their witness: ‘The Lord has been so good’. And that witness in the midst of such suffering deeply impacted the Iranian church.
Scent of success
Iran 1969. The scent of success was in the air. The Assemblies of God Churches were growing. Street evangelism was happening. New fellowships were being planted. Buildings were going up. Conferences were being organised. A Bible School was being launched. The Iranian leaders, Sam Yeghnazar, Haik Hovsepian-Mehr, were young and dynamic. And in the midst of all this passion were the US missionaries Mark and Gladys Bliss, whose faith in the Lord had already been tested and proved in Liberia where they had looked after lepers. Mark and Gladys arrived in Tehran in 1965 with their two young children Karen and Debbie. Their son Mark junior was born in Iran.
Mark’s assigned task was to work with Sam Yeghnazar to establish the Bible School in Tehran. He was always much more than an administrator. He was the wise older brother, the quietly spoken counsellor, the unflappable man of prayer, a crucial member of a team of anointed men and woman who were going to take the gospel of Jesus Christ to their generation of Iranians.
Scent of suffering
On October 24 1969, the scent of success mingled with a scent of suffering that few believers have had to endure. In the diary the day seemed that it would all be about success. Mark and Gladys were to attend a pastors’ conference and then the next day travel with the Hovsepian-Mehr family to Gorgan to see how the new church he was building was getting along. Haik was the first to sense the suffering. While translating for a conference speaker he felt so overwhelmed by God’s presence that he had to let someone else take over. Later he told Mark how God had asked him whether he was willing to pay any price to reach the people of Iran. Haik promised he was.
The day after the conference the Hovsepian-Mehrs (Haik, his wife Takoosh, and their infant son Joseph) and the Bliss family started the six hour drive in their Volvo over the winding, narrow, two-lane roads to Gorgan. They hoped to arrive before night fell. On the way they came to a village of about 10,000 where a few months earlier Mark and Haik had been arrested for evangelism. In typical style the men stopped and had an impassioned time of prayer for the salvation of that village. It went on for longer than they planned. So, because of their praying, some of their journey would now be at night.
Unknown to the families, that prayer meeting would change their lives forever. Mark got back into the driving seat with his daughters, Karen (13) and Debbie (11) sharing the front seat. In the back was his wife, his three-year-old son Mark, Haik, his wife Takoosh, and their six-month baby Joseph. Energised by the prayer meeting and fully alert, Mark drove on, looking forward to seeing the new church building in Gorgan. Night fell. He drove more cautiously, though the strong lights of the Volvo gave him a clear view of the road ahead.
Then, suddenly, he was blinded momentarily when an oncoming vehicle did not dip its lights. The Volvo ploughed into the back of a tractor-trailer loaded with grain. It was parked half on the road and half on the roadside. There were no lights on the tractor or the trailer. The impact was devastating.
All the children — Karen, Debbie, Mark, and Joseph — died on the roadside. Mark, Gladys, Haik and Takoosh were taken to a local hospital with basic facilities. Mark had minor injuries compared to the others who spent months recovering. All four survived physically. And they survived spiritually.
Faith in God
When Haik Hovsepian-Mehr heard the news that his baby son had died, he raised his hands from his hospital bed and said, ‘Praise the Lord’. When Mark was discharged he found a piano and began to worship, singing, ‘Great is thy faithfulness’.
Despite the terrible grief, Mark and Gladys never wavered in their faith in the ultimate sovereign goodness of God. They have set an example to all believers. They are also witnesses that in these times of intense grief, God is real. Looking back, Mark said: ‘God did not desert us. Instead he moved in with his love in a deeper dimension than we had ever known. We didn’t have to reach out to touch him. He was just so close to us through it all. His love kept us up. We were like a cork on the water — we just couldn’t go under. There was so much prayer in the Iranian church and God was showing us so much love’.
Charged with manslaughter
As the driver of the car involved in a fatal accident, Mark now faced charges of manslaughter. If he was found guilty, he faced a large fine, possibly a prison sentence. This was not a trial for a weak man. All his children were dead, his wife woke up every morning never hearing their cries of ‘Mummy, mummy!’, she was emotionally scarred, and now there was a day in court to prepare for with all the uncertainty of what the sentence might be. And until the court case, Mark and Gladys could not leave Iran to grieve with their own family in the USA. This trial did not last a few months. It took three years for the case to be heard.
An acquittal did not look likely. For Mark was to be tried by three Islamic judges, men whose every instinct would have been unsympathetic toward an American Christian whose whole life was dedicated to what for them was anathema: making Muslims apostates. He received great encouragement in an unexpected way. He was not fluent in Farsi and the court was unable to provide a translator. So they allowed him to find his own. He immediately called on Sam Yeghnazar. At the time he said, ‘Lord, this is wonderful. I have a Daniel here that’s so courageous and fearless, and he’s going to help me through this’. Mark’s prayer was right. While he translated what Mark said, Sam was fearless in his tone, inspiring confidence. Mark not only boldly proclaimed his innocence, but also, in that Islamic court, the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
‘I do not plead guilty.’ Mark told the court: ‘I do not consider myself guilty. But if you do consider me guilty, please consider in your verdict that I have already suffered the loss of my three children. But my children are not dead. They are alive. I know that these children are alive because Jesus Christ said, “I am the resurrection and the life and he that believes in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. And whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall never die”. It’s very clear’.
Mark left the court a free man. Though sentenced to ten months, he was granted immediate parole.
From sacrifice to harvest
Despite their loss, Haik and Takoush and Mark and Gladys continued to impact the Iranian church. Their courage, faith and determination to preach salvation in Jesus turned a tragedy into a faith-inspiring story. They had no desire to leave Iran, and stayed until the government closed the door on their ministry in 1979.
Speaking recently, Mark Bliss was reflecting on the remarkable growth of the church since he left Iran. He said: ‘After the tragedy, we prayed saying, “We have planted three seeds for the sake of a harvest in Iran”. Today, we are seeing that harvest’. Hence the testimony, after enduring such a painful sacrifice, remains — ‘The Lord has been so good’. And that testimony shaped the next generation of church leaders.
This article was first printed in Elam Ministries’ spring 2012 issue of Iran magazine, and is reprinted with permission. If you are interested in supporting the church in Iran, please contact Elam Ministries, PO Box 75, Godalming, Surrey, GU8 6YP (01483 427778, email@example.com).