Christian women attend a church service in Tehran, Iran. (Reuters)

By Niloufar Rostami

August 7, 2019

Mike Pence, the vice president of the United States, has called on Iran to release two Christians in prison.

Pence raised the cases of Mahrokh Kanbari, a newly-converted Christian, and Bet Tamraz, a Christian pastor, on Twitter on August 2.

The pair, he said, have faced harassment because of their religion, and added that the suppression of religious minorities in Iran is an affront to religious freedom.

The vice president also tweeted specifically about Kanbari: “I am appalled to hear reports that Iran’s despotic rulers have punished yet another Christian woman for exercising her freedom to worship.”

Mahrokh Kanbari, 65, was arrested in late June 2019 and charged with “propaganda against the regime” for converting to Christianity and attending home-church worship. Prior to this, security agents raided her home in Karaj and arrested her in the run-up to Christmas. Three other women were arrested, but their names have not been officially disclosed.

Following the Christmas raid, intelligence agents interrogated Kanbari for 10 days, before releasing her on a bail of 30 million tomans (US$3,000) while she awaited her trial, but she was arrested again in late June. There is no further information on her current status or further details of her arrest.

Article 18, an organization covering Christian news in Iran, published a brief article about Mahrokh Kanbari’s case on its website. It reported that she had been forced to see a clergyman in January to learn about Islamic values and principles. She was told that this would be her only chance to return to Islam.

Sentences Handed out by a Corrupt Judge

Iranian Assyrian Christians Pastor Bet Tamraz and his wife, Shamiram Isavi, have been sentenced to 10 and five years in prison respectively by order of Judge Mashallah Ahmadzadeh of Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court.

Amir Salar Davoodi, the couple’s defense attorney, has himself been sentenced to 15 years in prison and is currently detained in Evin Prison. Judge Ahmadzadeh, who oversaw the verdicts of at least 16 Christian converts since 2017, giving them long jail sentences, has since been removed from office for financial corruption.

Victor Bet Tamraz was the pastor of the former Pentecostal Church at Shahrara Street in Tehran, which belonged to Iranian Assyrians and was shut down on March 19, 2009. Since then, Pastor Bet Tamraz and his wife have turned their home into a church and invited Assyrian Christians to worship there.

Dabrina Bet Tamraz, a religious rights activist who immigrated to Switzerland in 2009 and is currently a pastor for a church near Zurich, told IranWire about her father’s arrest: “On December 24, 2014, my father was celebrating the birth of Christ at his home when security agents raided it with video cameras in their hands. They made all the guests promise in front of the camera not to gather [to worship] anymore, and then arrested and took my father away along with two of his guests.”

According to Bet Tamraz, the Assyrian pastor was in solitary confinement for 66 days and then released on bail. Since then, he has been banned from working as a pastor. “My father was a pastor for 40 years in Tehran and other cities across the country, but now because of the judge’s verdict, he can’t work as a pastor anymore. All Assyrian churches were shut down as well.”

From 2009 to 2014, Iran’s Intelligence Ministry shut down all Persian-speaking churches belonging to Assyrians or Protestants in the country. After this, not only did Christian converts have nowhere to pray, but Iran’s other Christian religious minorities, including Assyrians and Protestants, were also banned from having a church. Dabrina Bet Tamraz says that by 2014, all churches under the Assemblies of God (AOG) denomination were shut down.“Now only Catholic and Orthodox churches [traditional churches] can operate in Iran because they never spoke Persian in them. All Assyrian and Protestant churches, which are known as AOG, provided some services in the Persian language. Now, with AOG churches being shut down, Assyrians and Protestants can only go to traditional churches to worship.”

Bet Tamraz talked further about the churches’ activities: “People were praying in the Persian language in these churches. I understand the Assyrian language, but I can’t fluently read or write it, so it was easier to have all prayers and songs written in Persian. Speaking Persian in a church should not be considered a crime. My parents never promoted Christianity in public. Then when they shut down the church out of fear, my parent started their home church again. Gathering and worshiping together is not illegal and can’t be considered as a crime against national security.”

She also talked about the detainment of her mother and brother. “My brother Ramael was arrested by the security agents and police forces on August 27, 2016, when he was on a camping trip with other Christian converts in Firoozkooh. He was later sentenced to four months in prison. A while later my mom was also summoned to Evin’s prosecutor’s office and charged with conspiracy against national security for organizing home churches. She was sentenced to five years in prison by Judge Ahmadzadeh on January 6, 2018.”

Torture to Extract Fake Confessions

Pastor Bet Tamraz and his wife Shamiram Isavi have been charged with conspiracy against national security for organizing and running home churches, attending seminars abroad, and training Christian leaders in Iran. Bet Tamraz was sentenced to 10 years, Isavi to five years, and their son Ramael to four months in prison, sentences that were all handed down at Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court. The appeal court is reviewing their case for a final ruling. According to Dabrina Bet Tamraz, her mother is scheduled to have her appeal court hearing on September 3, 2019, but no date has yet been set for her father or her brother.

She said she did not know why her family was being given such severe punishment. “There is no evidence against them except organizing home churches. They asked my father why he went to the US, but he never set foot on US soil in his life. He told them this and asked them to prove their accusations. But they never provided any evidence and only wanted to force them to confess under such inhumane conditions. None of them have confessed to any wrongdoing so far.”

She talked about the Christian converts’ experience during the interrogations. “They were tortured mentally and psychologically. They beat up my father and threw him in solitary confinement infested with bugs with a dirty blanket for 65 days. He did not have any communication with anyone for the first 10 days, and on 11th day, he was taken for interrogation. He’s being interrogated for eight hours every day. But Christian converts’ experience is even worse, and they are physically tortured [even more]. After their release, some of them said they were hanged upside down and beaten with batons all over their bodies, including on their heads.”

According to the non-profit campaign group Article 18, 171 Christian converts in Iran were arrested in 2018, and 39 have been arrested since the beginning of 2019. Prior to this, Judge Mashallah Ahmadzadeh, who was head of Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court, sentenced 16 Christian converts to between five and 15 years in prison in 2017 alone.

Naser Navard Goltapeh, Hadi Asgari, Amin Afshar Naderi, Zaman Fadayi, Mohammadali Mosayebzadeh, and Mohammadreza Omidi are among those he has sentenced.

“I ask Iranian authorities to recognize freedom of religion and let their citizens decide for their own faith and destiny,” Dabrina Bet Tamraz said.

Regarding Mike Pence’s tweet in support of her father, she said: “These are heartwarming and hopeful words that imprisoned religious minorities in Iran are not forgotten. But they are only a starting point. No one really knows how many human rights activists and regime critics are imprisoned and forgotten. The only thing we can do is to talk about the violation of human rights and religious freedoms in Iran and make Iran’s regime accountable.”

Iran Wire

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.