‘Many Iranians don’t even know recognised religious communities are repressed’

‘Many Iranians don’t even know recognised religious communities are repressed’

This interview was conducted by Dutch newspaper Reformatorisch Dagblad and translated by Christian Network Europe. It is re-published here with kind permission. 

“I faced oppression from a very early age”, says Dabrina Bet-Tamraz. The 37-year-old grew up in the Iranian capital, Tehran, where her father was a pastor in an Assyrian church. Now Dabrina lives in Switzerland, where she is a pastor and also helps political refugees from Iran. Recently, she was a guest speaker at the European Parliament launch of Open Doors’ World Watch List.

What kind of oppression did you suffer when you still lived in Iran?

“As a teenager, I noticed people in the country looked down on Christians. For instance, classmates did not want to sit next to me. Teachers sometimes called me a pig, an unclean animal. Once, when I drank from a cup, a teacher threw it away afterwards. She said the cup was now so dirty that washing it didn’t help.

“Once, a teacher slapped me in my face because I was a Christian. I then shouted at him: ‘God bless you!’ I don’t know why I said that, but it helped. He stopped.”

Your father was a pastor. Was he limited in his work?

“The Assyrian church to which we belonged was recognised by the regime. That means we were allowed to hold church services. But that was it. My father was not allowed to preach in Persian, the official Iranian language. Evangelising, or admitting Muslim converts to the church community, was strictly forbidden.

“Moreover, the intelligence services constantly watched my family. My parents were taken by security officers and interrogated several times. In the church, the authorities placed spies.

“In the 1990s, many Iranian pastors were murdered. My father was also arrested many times during that period. Regularly he did not appear on the pulpit, and someone else had to fill in for him at the last minute.”

Why were the authorities bothering you when the Assyrian church is recognised by the government?

“Recognition does not mean you can do whatever you want. Recognised Christians are forced to act as puppets of the state.

“Illustrative for me is how the only Assyrian MP condemned the recent protests in Iran. He said Christians who demonstrate are a poison and cancer to the faith. That man is just like a mouthpiece of the Iranian authorities.

“My family did not obey the regime blindly. But those who act in this way risk imprisonment.”

How do Iranians relate to Christians?

“Iranians are naturally warm-hearted people. Although they initially have a certain fear of Christians, they become open as they get to know you better. I noticed that during my time at school. When I invited teachers to attend church services, my maths teacher accepted the offer. He is also a Christian now.”

Is the repression mainly coming from the government?

“In Iran, the regime poses the biggest threat to Christians. But repression takes place very much under the radar. As a result, many Iranians do not even know that the regime is repressing recognised communities. With propaganda, the regime has extreme power to brainwash. They paint the picture of supporting recognised communities. For example, at Christmas, state television broadcasts that the Ayatollah attends a church service.

“The regime also pretends that it arrests believers because they pose a threat to national security, and not because of their Christian faith. The regime makes Iranians believe Christians are in the service of ‘Zionist’ organisations spying for Israel and America. This is believed. I was sometimes asked, ‘Dabrina, are you a Zionist Christian?’”

You eventually fled Iran. Why did you do so?

“In 2009, the authorities closed our church because my father preached in Persian and opened church services to Muslim converts. We then started organising services at home.

“I was at university at the time and was arrested. They took me to a men’s prison and forced me to give them information about our pastors and church activities. I also had to agree to criminal charges against my father and other pastors. If I would not comply, they threatened me with imprisonment, rape or even execution.

“That year, I also experienced two car ‘accidents’. And an officer warned me, ‘You won’t survive the next accident.’

“Eventually, the intelligence services made it impossible for me to still live safely in Iran. In 2010, I fled to Switzerland.”

Did your parents remain in Iran?

“When the authorities heard that my father was still preaching to Muslim converts at home, officers raided our house during a Christmas celebration in 2014 and arrested those present. They conducted a search and confiscated all the Bibles and personal belongings like mobile phones and passports.

“My father was charged with ‘acting against national security by establishing house-churches’. They shaved him bald to humiliate him. After 65 days of solitary confinement, he was released on bail.

“In 2020, my parents fled the country. Actually, they wanted to stay in Iran, but they faced a combined 15 years in prison. My brother still lives there.”

How do you help Iranian Christians while living in Switzerland?

“In church and society, I try to raise awareness about the situation of Iranian Christians. For instance, I have twice addressed the UN and once visited the White House to speak with then-President Donald Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence.”

There have been protests in Iran for five months now. Can they improve the situation of Christians in Iran?

“The protests do give me hope. There have been several demonstrations in Iran since 2009, but now they are on a larger scale and in almost every city in the country. Mass rallies are also taking place in Europe to draw attention to human rights in Iran. There were 80,000 people in Berlin in October and around 15,000 in Strasbourg in January.

“But whether the protests improve the situation of Iranian Christians in the short term, that I doubt. We see that Iranian Christians and protesters are fighting for the same principles. Both want to be free, and both are now oppressed by the authorities. This creates a sense of community.”

What is your wish for Iranian Christians?

“I want freedom, justice and humane treatment for Iranian Christians. God’s heart longs for justice. The Bible even says He hates injustice. As a believer, I want to fight for that cause.”

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