From Iranian Muslim to Israeli Christian priest: The life of Daniel Dana

How did Jamshid Hassani, a Shi’ite Muslim born in Iran, become a Christian priest living in Israel, who only recently discovered his Jewish roots?

 ‘I am a simple soldier of my people’ – Dr. Daniel Dana  (photo credit: COURTESY DANIEL DANA)
‘I am a simple soldier of my people’ – Dr. Daniel Dana
(photo credit: COURTESY DANIEL DANA)

He set up an underground against the Khomeini regime, was sentenced to death three times and forced to flee from Iran for his life. He was born a Muslim, converted to Christianity but discovered that he is a Jew. As one who has undergone so many vicissitudes, Dr. Daniel Dana preaches “brotherhood of the monotheistic faiths” and hopes for the downfall of the Iranian regime.

How did Jamshid Hassani, a Shi’ite Muslim born in Iran, become a Christian priest living in Israel, who only recently discovered his Jewish roots? Dana’s tortuous life journey – he set up an underground against the Ayatollah’s regime in his native land and was sentenced to death three times, only to find political refuge in Australia – is related in his new autobiography called Shlosha Havalim Letliya (“Three Ropes for Hanging”), published by Orion.

The story of Daniel Dana

Dana’s book begins with a description of his childhood in a sleepy village, growing up between mumbled verses from the Koran and a grandmother with a strange craze for separating meat and milk. Yet it quickly takes a James Bond-like twist. The diligent and studious Iranian boy sheds his skin and becomes a heroic warrior against the Shi’ite forces of evil who conquered Iran with the fall of shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.

Dana was among the first who fought against Ruhollah Khomeini. As a young attorney, he went to continue his studies in Paris, where he set up the “Javan” underground, which led an armed struggle against the new Islamic regime in his homeland. One of Javan’s better-known operations was the capture of the Iranian missile gunboat Tabarzin – anchored in a Spanish port.

When he returned to his homeland, Dana and his “Western” lifestyle were viewed as a threat by the regime. The sensitive cases he chose to take on as an attorney – such as political prisoners or women condemned to stoning on charges of adultery – placed him in the regime’s gun sights. In addition, his secretary, who subsequently became his wife, was arrested on the charge of “walking side-by-side in the street”. Finally, they were forced to seek political asylum in Australia.

 Dana with two Iranian friends. (credit: COURTESY DANIEL DANA)
Dana with two Iranian friends. (credit: COURTESY DANIEL DANA)

“I am not important,” he says, when I ask him how he spent all his adult life under constant threat. 

“I am a simple soldier of my people. I believe this is my mission in the world. Therefore, I am not seeking importance or fame. I am only concerned with the welfare of my people and trying to help them.”

Dana explains, “It is not easy to express my feelings in words. The struggle for Iran is the most important thing for me. And despite the difficulties it entails, I have sacrificed for it joyfully. That is the price of a strong faith. The death sentence that hovered over my head three times prepared me for death. I imagined my death quite a few times. Nonetheless, today I believe that God wants me to remain alive to carry my message forward.”

One of the outstanding principles in Dana’s doctrine is the absolute separation of the Iranian-Persian culture and its religious tradition from Shi’ite Sharia principles, which he describes as dangerous militant messages that menace not only the Iranians and the inhabitants of the Middle East but also the entire Western world.

“The Shi’ite literature, especially that written since the conquest of Iran by the Muslims, proves indisputably that Ahmedinadjad and his colleagues are loyal Shi’ites following the path of the founders of Shi’ism. The amputation of limbs, public lashings, stoning and beheadings, are part and parcel of the Shi’ite menu. Every means that enforces the dominion of the extremist Shi’ite regime is considered legitimate.”

Dana says that until the age of 16, he was “a classical Shi’ite.”

“I read the Koran every day and learned its verses by heart. I loved to read that book and I believed that the things written in it represented God. However, in the course of time theological questions accumulated in me, and as I grew older the questions multiplied. Unfortunately, I had no one to ask.”

What began with doubts and led to an atheistic way of life took a surprise turn in Australia where Dana began to study Christian theology and subsequently converted to Christianity and was even ordained as a priest. 

Simultaneously, he began to translate Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses into Persian, which aroused the wrath of Muslims the world over. The translation of the book and the sharp disputes he had with Palestinian Jordanians living in Australia led the authorities there to declare him “persona non grata.” He is thus considered to this very day.

“It began out of simple curiosity and an attempt to understand why Rushdie received the death sentence. After I read the book, I wanted to deliver Salman’s message to Iranians who don’t read English. The Australian intelligence services were afraid of this step, and instructed me not to continue with the translation work, since many of those who dared to translate it to various languages were killed or attacked by Muslims,” Dana says.

In 2000, Dana arrived in Israel in the framework of his academic activities. Since the Australian authorities had prohibited his reentry into their country, he was forced to remain in Israel. Perhaps this was a portent of things to come.

Seven years later, in a meeting with his cousin who lives in the US, Dana learned about his true roots: “The first hint arose when I fell ill in Israel four years previously. Tests I underwent in a hospital in Jerusalem showed that I was suffering from a genetic disease called thalassemia [major or Cooley] anemia from which Jews of Middle Eastern origin suffer. When the doctors found out that I was a Muslim they were very surprised,” he says.

“At a meeting with my cousin Miriam, the secret was revealed. She told me that her father, on his deathbed in Iran, revealed that he was a Jew. He told her that our original family name was Abayef. They lived as Muslims since arriving in Iran from Russia, for fear of Muslim persecution. This information shocked me. Suddenly there fell into place the genetic disease, the Shiite grandmother who kept meat and milk separate, and Uncle Musa, who in fact until the age of eight was named Moshe.”

The religious and belief upheavals experienced by Dana have led him to the conclusion that adopting a moral value system of honesty, purity, morality and care for one’s fellow man is the “true religion” no matter what the professed religion of the believer. He views the spirit of religion as a “brotherhood of monotheists.”

Dana is not satisfied with theories and writing articles. Parallel to his ongoing work as an international lawyer, he established the Peace and Love International Movement, which promotes peace throughout the Muslim world and especially in Iran. 

“I want to spread the message of peace among all the children of God, a message calling for abandoning the path of terror and for love of one’s fellow, based on humanity and not on any ideology,” he asserts.

“Religious history is not just a history of wars and inter-religious disputes, but it is also the history of different cultures and faiths that have lived together in harmony. So it is definitely possible for people with different religious beliefs or social principles to live in cooperation and mutual respect. 

“We train young Muslims and Iranians all over the world how to put these messages into practice, and how to oppose the Iranian regime in a way that is without violence or bloodshed.” 

Asked how he sees future relations between Israel and Iran in the shadow of the Islamic State’s nuclear drive, Dana says he hopes and prays for the fall of the Iranian regime “and for an end to the oppression under which millions of my people live.”

He says he is naturally “very anxious” and hopes that, “at the end of the day, a solution will be found for the problem.”

“It is important to make the distinction between the current Iranian regime and the Iranian people who are tolerant and peace-loving. In the past, Israel had excellent relations with Iran. There is no reason that this should not happen in the future.” he says.

Another important conference in Dana’s eventful life is scheduled for August 8-11 at ZOA House in Tel Aviv: PLIM’s Peace and Love Movement conference. 

Dana founded PLIM in 1990 to make Iranians in Israel and throughout the world aware of the importance and significance of the Israel-Iran historic connection as sister nations and about the continuing opposition to the Shi’ite regime in Iran in the hope that, before long, it will be overthrown. Among those present at the Peace and Love conference will be Iranian opposition leaders and community leaders as well as Turkish, Kurdish, Arab and Christian representatives. They are expected to issue a declaration of their love for Israel and their desire to work for a better future.

Then, on August 11, Dana will be addressing a press conference at the Israel Bar Association, which will include an impressive exhibition of books, photos and video clips about the historic connection between Israel and Iran. The conference aims to encourage cooperation between Iranian Jews in Israel and throughout the world as well as among Jews and Christians supporting Israel and opposing the current regime.  ■

This article was translated from Hebrew by David Herman.