Two ethnic Assyrians in Iran, Victor Bet-Tamraz and his wife Shamiran Issavi, have each been sentenced to ten years in prison for activities related to the practice of their Christian faith.
According to Amnesty International, Bet-Tamraz and Issavi, as well as two Christian converts named Amin Afshar-Naderi and Hadi Asgari, have been targeted for “illegal church activities” which “threaten national security” in order to justify their convictions. Authorities have cited private Christmas gatherings, organizing and conducting house churches, as well as traveling outside of the country to attend Christian seminars in their case.
Bet-Tamraz, Afshar-Naderi, and one other individual were detained in Tehran on December 26, 2014 during a private Christmas gathering by officers in civilian clothing, and taken to Evin prison in Iran where they had no access to legal representation and very minimal contact with their families. Several months later, they were released on bail and later tried alongside Asgari on May 21, 2017. The men were charged with “forming a group composed of more than two people with the purpose of disrupting national security” in relation to their church activities.
The men were convicted in July 2017, and the Iranian Revolutionary Court in Tehran sentenced each individual to ten years in prison.
Shamiran Issavi was summoned to the Office of the Prosecutor in Evin prison in June 2017 and charged with offenses related to the practice of her Christian faith. In January 2018, she was found guilty of “membership of a group with the purpose of disrupting national security” and “gathering and colluding to commit crimes against national security.” She was sentenced to a total of ten years in prison.
Victor Bet-Tamraz and his family have been persecuted by Iranian authorities for years. Bet-Tamraz formerly led the Pentecostal Assyrian Church in Tehran, which was forcibly shut down in March 2009 by the Iranian Ministry of the Interior for offering religious services in the Persian language. Ethnic churches in Iran are solely permitted to conduct services in their own language and are strictly prohibited from offering services in Persian. The Pentecostal Assyrian Church was later permitted to reopen but only after Bet-Tamraz was replaced and services continued in the Assyrian language only.
Bet-Tamraz’s son, Ramil Bet-Tamraz was also arrested in August 2016 and charged with “spreading propaganda against the system” through “membership of illegal house churches.” He was sentenced to four months in prison, but has appealed his sentencing.
On June 27, 2018, Dabrina Bet-Tamraz, the daughter of Bet-Tamraz and Issavi, pleaded with the United Nations Human Rights Council to intervene and urge Iranian authorities to overturn the “false and baseless” charges imposed on her father, mother, and brother.
“Iran is home to several Christian denominations, including Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox Armenian, and Assyrian (Chaldean) Christians. Christians are one of the few religious minorities officially recognized in Iran’s Constitution. However, the Constitution provides only limited protections to Christians while Christian converts are provided no protection at all under the law. Consequently, Christians in Iran have been a target of harassment, arbitrary arrest and detention, unfair trials, an imprisonment on national security-related charges solely because of their faith. In the past year alone, dozens of Christians, mostly Christian converts, have been targeted.” Read Amnesty’s urgent call to action here.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which includes Iran as a state party, states that “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or in private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teach” and that persons belonging to religious minorities “shall not be denied the right, in community with other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, or to use their own language.”