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The remarkable Jean Waddell: Hostage who shared a prison cell with Cynthia Brown Dwyer forgave her captors

Two women I knew from different parts of the globe ended up in the same prison cell in Iran – Cynthia Brown Dwyer of Buffalo and Jean Waddell of the United Kingdom.

I met Waddell in the garden of St. George’s Anglican Cathedral in Jerusalem. Absentmindedly on a hot day in 1982, I had sat down on a stone bench in the garden. Then I looked at the person sharing the bench.

“You must be Jean Waddell,” I said.

She replied, “I thought that was why you sat here.”

I had heard of her. She had been the secretary to several Anglican bishops in Jerusalem. In 1977, she became the secretary to the Right Rev. Hassan Dehqani-Tafti, the Anglican bishop of Isfahan, Iran.

Waddell had spent her childhood in Arbroath, Scotland, where the famous declaration of Scottish independence was signed in 1320. And she herself showed a very independent streak. She was a WREN in World War II, serving in the Women’s Royal Naval Service. Afterward, she worked as a secretary in London – first in business, then in a medical office and later at a charity for disabled people.

In 1965, she applied for the position and was appointed secretary to the Anglican bishop in Jerusalem, the Most Rev. Angus Campbell MacInnes, a fellow Scot. At that time, Jerusalem was divided between Israel and Jordan. The Anglican Cathedral was in East Jerusalem under Jordanian control. During the Six-Day War of 1967, shells exploded all around St. George’s Cathedral, while she and the rest of the staff sheltered in the basement.

When the fighting was over, East Jerusalem was under Israeli occupation. There were considerable adjustments for the clergy, staff and neighbors.

In 1977, Dehqani-Tafti invited Waddell to be his secretary in Isfahan. In contrast to the tensions in Jerusalem, Iran seemed to be a haven of peace. Waddell thought she was going to a country where all religions lived harmoniously under the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

What she did not know was the dreadful fear of the SAVAK, the terrorizing secret police. Later, Waddell would talk of the joy and celebrations in Isfahan when the shah left Iran.

The Anglican Church there was led by Iranian clergy and administrators at the start of the Iranian Revolution. About 30 Christian missionaries worked with them in hospitals, schools and with blind people.

It is interesting to note that Joseph Plumb Cochran, M.D., of Buffalo’s Westminster Presbyterian Church, founded Iran’s first modern medical school in 1878 and opened a 100-bed facility, Westminster Hospital, in Urmia, Iran, in 1879. That was exactly a century before the Iranian Revolution became hostile to medical missionaries.

On Nov. 4, 1979, the American Embassy in Tehran was seized by militants. Fifty-two Americans were held hostage for 444 days.

In Isfahan, revolutionaries scaled the walls of the Anglican compound in an attempt to assassinate the bishop. They tried to shoot him in his bed, but his wife, Margaret Thompson Dehqani-Tafti, covered him with her body and suffered a severe bullet wound to her hand. She saved the pillow case with four bullet holes.

Six months later, in May 1980, Waddell, fearing for her life, went to Tehran to apply for an exit visa. Her flat was invaded by militants. She was shot through one lung, the diaphragm and ribs, and left for dead.

A few days later, Bakram, the 24-year-old only son of Dehqani-Tafti, was ambushed in his car and shot dead, apparently by Iranian government agents.

Miraculously, Waddell, battered and bloody, was found by her downstairs neighbors and fellow Church Mission Society members, Diana and Paul Hunt and their two daughters, who had planned to invite Waddell on a picnic. Fortuitously, she recovered, cared for by Christians. But she was subsequently arrested, accused of spying and imprisoned in isolation for two months.

Government agents then took her to Evin Prison, where she was to share a cell for six months with Dwyer and four Iranian women. Waddell said they were terrified every time the door opened. They feared they would be shot dead.

Dwyer was arrested on May 5, 1980, about the same time that Waddell and the bishop’s son were shot. This was also the very stressful time of the Iran-Iraq War, which claimed the lives of over 1 million Iranians and half a million Iraqis.

The cell Waddell and Dwyer shared became known as “Jean’s Cafe” because Waddell had a heater and was able to brew tea and coffee for the inmates. Her tea and coffee not only helped sustain the prisoners, but her implicit faith in God helped their morale.

Both women felt compassion for their Muslim cellmates. They were also interested in the Christians, Baha’is and Zoroastrians they met. They had interfaith dialogues with them and with their jailers. They spoke about the oneness of God and the presence of God in any and every situation. One guard even gave Waddell a Persian grammar book so she could improve her language skills.

Dwyer went through menopause during her incarceration, and Waddell, 10 years her senior, helped explain what was happening to her.

The 444-day hostage crisis dominated the airwaves. President Jimmy Carter worked tirelessly for the Americans’ release. They were finally set free on Jan. 20, 1981, the day of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration. (I was there for the big Washington celebration because Bob Rich Jr. had secured tickets for me.)

But America’s “53rd hostage” was still being held. While in prison, Dwyer had no access to hair dye. Gray hair grew in at the roots, so there was a regrowth of about 5 inches of gray by the time she arrived home on Feb. 11, 1981. She wore a bucket hat to hide the regrowth.

Dwyer, a free-lance journalist and speaker, like me, had gone to Iran to get the back story, the human interest narratives behind the Iranian Revolution. I empathized with her zeal to get that very special feature article. Dwyer was irate that the U.S. government sent her a bill for $5,000 for securing her release.

I taught creative writing in the English Department of Buffalo State College with Dwyer’s husband, John, who kept the home fires burning for himself and their three children while she was away. When she returned, I invited her to speak to the Western New York Branch of the National League of American Pen Women at one of our meetings at the Buffalo Yacht Club.

Like most Americans, I was very interested in the Middle East. Elaine Sciolino, a Buffalo native and New York Times reporter, and my brother’s good friend and neighbor, Peter Jennings, who anchored ABC’s evening news, had been on the airplane that took Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini back to Iran in February 1979 after four months of exile near Paris as the guest of the then-President of France, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, whom I met at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

During the summer of 1976, I had studied in Jerusalem with the General Theological Seminary. We used St. George’s Anglican College and St. George’s Anglican Cathedral as our study site. Four times, I returned to Jerusalem to reunite with fellow students and faculty.

British humanitarian Terry Waite, CBE, a negotiator for the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, helped secure Waddell’s release from prison. After being freed, she worked in Basingstoke, England, as secretary to the exiled Dehqani-Tafti. Despite her travails, her love of the Middle East endured. For many years, Waddell escorted tours to the Holy Land.

Waite continued to help negotiate the release of other hostages in Iran, Libya and Lebanon. Then Waite himself, after being promised safe passage, was captured and detained for five years in a dark Lebanese prison, chained to a radiator, in isolation. Toward the end of his captivity, frequent tapping on the wall revealed that Terry Anderson of Batavia and several other hostages were housed in the cell next to his.

In 1982, Waddell and I attended the investiture of the Right Rev. Samir Hanna Kafity as Anglican bishop co-adjutor in Jerusalem. In 1984, we attended his investiture as the second Palestinian Arab Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem, succeeding the Right Rev. Faik Ibrahim Haddad.

Waddell not only worked for bishops, she inspired at least one. The Right Rev. Graham Kings said he was inspired by a BBC radio interview in which Waddell talked about forgiving her murderous captors. He changed his field of study at Cambridge University, immediately joined the Church Mission Society and became interested in mission theology.

The Right Rev. Suheil Dawani, the current Anglican bishop to Jerusalem, said, “Jean Waddell is a wonderful woman. I enjoyed playing tennis with her.”

Dwyer died on Jan. 31. She was 84.

On Feb. 20, Waite emailed me from Africa, where he continues his charity work, to tell me that Waddell is alive and well at age 94, living in the south of England.

Waddell and I share Scottish heritage. I am very proud that in 1981, she was elected Scotland’s “Scot of the Year.”

Bonnie Gordon Flickinger, Ph.D., is faculty emerita of Buffalo State College and president of Rainbow Lectures.