Iranian pastor, wife lose appeal of prison sentences for house church participation
The parents of an Iranian Christian who met with President Donald Trump last year in the Oval Office have lost their appeals of years-long prison sentences for operating and participating in house church meetings.
The human rights watchdog Article 18 reports that Assyrian-Iranians Pastor Victor Bet-Tamraz and his wife, Shamiram Isavi, were informed that they have lost their appeals and have been summoned to begin their sentences as both were out on bail.
In 2017, Tamraz, the pastor of a Pentecostal congregation in Tehran, was sentenced to 10 years in prison after he was arrested during a Christmas celebration in 2014 and spent 65 days in solitary confinement. He was accused of acting against national security by conducting house church meetings and evangelizing.
Meanwhile, Isavi was sentenced to five years in prison in 2018 on charges of “membership of a group with the purpose of disrupting national security” and “gathering and colluding to commit crimes against national security.”
“Pastor Bet-Tamraz and Shamiram Isavi are innocent of the charges brought against them, but like other Christians in their position, they have been convicted for exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief,” Mervyn Thomas, chief executive of the London-based humanitarian nonprofit Christian Solidarity Worldwide, said in a statement.
“CSW urges the Iranian authorities to end the effective criminalization of Christian practices, to dismiss these charges and to release all who are detained on account of their religion or beliefs.”
Article 18, a London-based nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness of religious freedom issues in Iran, reports that Isavi was informed on Aug. 11 that she is to report to Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison to begin her sentence.
The watchdog added that Tamraz’s lawyer called on July 19 to inform him that not only was the appeal rejected but also that he can no longer appeal the sentence. It's unclear whether Isavi will be able to appeal further, and fears are that she, too, will have no more appeal options since their cases were merged last year by a new judge.
Since being sentenced, the couple has had multiple appeal hearings postponed for different reasons. The couple was supposed to have a hearing on June 1, but that was canceled as well without their lawyers being allowed in the room where the decision to cancel had been made, according to Article 18.
Tamraz was sentenced along with two other Christian converts but it's unclear whether those converts will also be ordered to prison.
In February, the couple’s son, Ramiel Bet Tamraz, was released from prison three months early after he was jailed for “spreading Christian propaganda.”
The couple’s daughter, Dabrina Bet-Tamraz, was among a group of participants in the July 2019 U.S. State Department Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom who met with Trump in the Oval Office. She asked Trump to advocate for her family members the next time he negotiates with the Iranian leadership.
Iran ranks as the ninth-worst country in the world when it comes to Christian persecution, according to Open Doors USA’s 2020 World Watch List.
During Open Doors’ 2020 reporting period — Nov. 1, 2018, to Oct. 31, 2019 — at least 169 Christians were arrested. In Iran, it's illegal to share the Christian faith in public or produce Christian literature. Also, it's illegal to hold church services in Farsi, the most common language in Iran.
According to Open Doors, several house churches were raided in the 2020 reporting period.
While speaking at a Family Research Council event in Washington, D.C., earlier this year, Dabrina Bet Tamraz told the audience about how Iranian authorities shut down her parent’s church in 2009 because her father refused demands to only allow Assyrian-speaking people to be members of the church.
“Today, there is not a free church. There is no free evangelical church, nor free Pentecostal,” she said.
“The only churches that are allowed to function are Orthodox or Catholic churches with restrictions. They are not allowed to have books in Farsi. They are not even allowed to, nowadays, print books in our own language. Any Christian literature or Bible even in our own language is not permitted. They are not even allowed to speak to a Farsi person near the church.”
She told The Christian Post at the time that Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have asked for her parents’ release in written and verbal statements.