Assyrian Pastor and human rights activist Dabrina Bet Tamraz spoke on a panel entitled "Addressing Challenges to Religious Freedom in the Middle East" at the second annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom organized by the United States Department of State hosted in Washington, D.C. on July 17, 2019. She spoke on challenges facing Christian minorities in Iran.
She provided the following statement:
I would like to start by thanking the U.S. Department of State, namely Secretary Pompeo, Ambassador Brownback, and Special Adviser Knox Thames, for organizing this important event and allowing me the opportunity to share my story.
Terrorists, Zionists, spies, a threat to national security: This is how Evangelical Christians are referred to in my native country Iran. Many Christians have received lengthy prison sentences for false charges related to the practice of their faith, and their sentences have been upheld by the Court of Appeals. Most of these cases involved converts from Islam, but there are also several instances where members of recognized Armenian and Assyrian Christian minorities were imprisoned or sentenced to prison due to their religious activities. My parents, my only brother, and myself included.
My father, Pastor Victor Bet-Tamraz, was an official recognized pastor by the Iranian government. He led a Pentecostal Assyrian Church for more than 40 years conducting services in Farsi and Assyrian. Our church was shut down by Iran’s Ministry of Interior in March 2009.
My family was a target of continuous harassment from Iranian authorities for as long as I can remember. On 26th December 2014, everything changed for worse, when plain-clothed security officers raided my family’s home during a Christmas celebration and arrested all attendees. The authorities separated men from women and conducted strip searches, seizing all Bibles, confiscating personal items such as cellphones, laptops, and identification documents. All attendees were interrogated on camera and were forced to sign forms committing to never gather together again.
My father was taken and imprisoned right away. They beat him. They shaved his head as a way to humiliate him. They treated him as though he was a criminal—a terrorist. He was kept in solitary confinement for 65 days; at times without any human interaction for over ten days. He was charged with “conducting evangelism” and “illegal house church activities” among other false charges that amounted to “acting against national security.” Today, my father, Pastor Victor Bet Tamraz, is appealing a ten-year prison sentence.
Following my father’s arrest, my brother Rameil and 4 other Christians were arrested at a picnic gathering in Tehran. We were initially unable to obtain any information about the whereabouts of those detained. The following day, we received a very short phone call from my brother, who told us they were being held in Tehran’s Evin prison. We didn’t hear from him again until a month had passed. They were interrogated and denied access to their attorneys during the entire period they were held. They too were charged with “acting against national security” and “organizing and establishing house churches.” It didn’t stop there. Shortly after their arrests, the wives of two of the prisoners were dismissed from work on orders from Iranian authorities.
In 2017, my mother Shamiran Issavi, was summoned to meet with officers of the Intelligence and National Security Organization. She was questioned and interrogated for several hours. She was forced to provide information about our church members and religious activities. My mother was subsequently charged and sentenced to 5 years in prison for “membership of a group with the purpose of disrupting national security” and an additional 5 years in prison for “gathering and colluding to commit crimes against national security.” She is scheduled for an appeal hearing in September this year.
I endured a similar experience before leaving Iran. I was detained and held in a men’s detention center without the presence of any female officers. I was ultimately forced to cooperate with the authorities and provide the names of our church leaders and information about their activities. I was then forced to sign documents and agree to criminal charges against my own family and other pastors.
The Iranian Christian community, along with other religious minorities in the country, continue to be denied their right to freedom of religion or belief. These human rights violations threaten the safety of these communities. Ongoing surveillance of Christians by the authorities is often accompanied by harassment, which takes various forms. The end of 2018 saw an unprecedented wave of raids on private house gatherings, leading to a large number of arrests. In 2018 alone, 171 Christian converts were arrested and charged with similar, baseless accusations. They are now either awaiting trial or serving lengthy prison sentences. At least 37 Christian converts have been arrested so far this year. These people are not religious leaders or pastors. They are not politicians or activists of some sort. They are simply Believers attending prayer and worship gatherings and meetings. But to the Iranian authorities, any non-Islamic religious gathering is considered a threat to the requiem.
Today, recognized church facilities remain closed to ethnic Persian Christians, as well as Evangelical Assyrian and Armenia minorities. In a number of cases, church property has been confiscated by authorities. Just a few months ago in May, Iranian authorities raided the historic Assyrian Presbyterian Church in Tabriz. They ordered the church warden to leave and proceeded to change the locks, tore down the cross from the church tower, and installed surveillance equipment.
I myself am an ethnic Assyrian Christian. My people trace their ancestry in these lands for thousands of years, and yet now we have all but disappeared from our homeland. According to the 1976 census, there were 200,000 Assyrian Christians in Iran. Now, less than one-fourth of that number remain. I ask myself why.
Religious persecution is the reason I left Iran. I was able to escape, but I cannot forget those I left behind—my family and all the innocent people who are serving harsh sentences for the peaceful practice of their faith. Every person has the right to live in safety, peace, and dignity.
The government of Iran has an obligation under international law to respect, protect, and fulfill the right to freedom of religion or belief.
I call on the Iranian authorities to:
Order the immediate and unconditional release of Christians detained on spurious charges related to the practice of their faith and religious activities; and
Uphold the right to freedom of religion or belief for every citizen, regardless of their ethnic or linguistic group, including converts from other religions.
I ask that the United States and the international community assist in holding Iran accountable for its mistreatment of religious minorities and urging Iranian authorities to uphold their obligation to ensure freedom of religion and belief for all of its citizens by emphasizing this principle during negotiations with, or concerning, Iran.
Lastly, I turn to the people in this room, and humbly ask that you help bring awareness to the ongoing persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in Iran. Thank you for your time, and thank you for allowing me the opportunity to share my family’s story.