Victor Bet-Tamraz reflects on 10-year sentence that forced him out of Iran

Victor Bet-Tamraz reflects on 10-year sentence that forced him out of Iran

Iranian-Assyrian pastor Victor Bet-Tamraz has spoken exclusively to Article18 about how his years of service to the Church in Iran ultimately led to a 10-year prison sentence that forced him out of the country.

In the 30-minute video interview, Pastor Victor says leaving Iran was the “hardest decision of my life” and one he was “forced to take”.

The pastor, who began working with the legally recognised Assyrian Pentecostal Church in 1975, fled Iran last month with his wife Shamiram Issavi after they were informed their appeals against a combined 15 years in prison had been rejected.

In the wide-ranging interview, the pastor describes his arrest on 26 December 2014, as he celebrated Christmas with his family and other Christian friends, and how he was then held for 65 days in solitary confinement.

The Iranian state media later claimed he had never even seen the colour of the prison walls – to which Pastor Victor responds: “Indeed I didn’t see the colour of the prison! They are right! Because I always had to wear a blindfold over my eyes!”

The pastor also explains the conditions of his confinement in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison:

“Inside Ward 209, which is a famous ward for political prisoners – and my case was considered completely a political and ‘security’-related case. It seems Christianity, or at least Protestantism, is considered fundamentally political! – you are inside a cell that is 2.2 metres long, 1.5 metres wide, and 4 metres high.

“The lights are constantly on for 24 hours. The light on the door is on, the light on the wall behind you is on, the light in the hallway is on, and ‘Quran Radio’ is on for 24 hours.”

Pastor Victor says he was forced to ask before they would let him visit the toilet – and that they would make him wait before allowing him to go – and that when he became very unwell and couldn’t sleep for eight nights, it was only on the last of these nights that they finally allowed him to see a doctor.

When eventually he was released and later convicted of “actions against national security”, Pastor Victor says it “hurt to know you haven’t committed any crime, nor made any particular mistake, and that your only crime is that you love Christ and worship God, and that this is a crime for Christians in Iran”.

‘A game for the cat, but death for the mouse’

The pastor also explains the “very difficult time” he and Shamiram endured in the following three years after his 2017 sentencing – Shamiram was later sentenced in January 2018 – as their appeals dragged on and on.

“It was a very difficult time, all this waiting,” he says. “There were usually three or four appeal hearings scheduled each year, and when they announced the date – two months before each hearing – your worrying started and you no longer had peace of mind, because you didn’t know what would happen.

“Then there is the hearing itself, when it is just you and the judge. There is no one else. The lawyer is with you, but they [the judges] don’t listen to anyone anyway. It seems they have already decided. It’s just a game. You come and go. But when this game is over, that’s the hard part.

“There is a saying in Persian: ‘It’s a game for a cat, but death for the mouse.’ You experience this death several times during each year – at least three or four times – so in three years, if you add it up, we experienced this 12 times!”

Pastor Victor then explains his and Shamiram’s “extremely difficult” decision to leave:

“I didn’t want to leave Iran at all. If they gave me two years, three years in prison, I would have endured it. But they issued the verdict very late, and I am almost 66 years old now. You can imagine, if I would go to prison now, I would go in alive, but most likely I wouldn’t come out alive.”

“But leaving Iran was the hardest journey I’ve ever made,” he adds. “You can’t easily leave your homeland, where you grew up. The hardest part of a person’s life is leaving his homeland. Your homeland is where you belong. My ‘belongings’ weren’t a house, a car, or the streets. My ‘belongings’ were the people I served for 45 years all over the country. It was love, it was affection, it was hope, it was life; it was sitting at each other’s tables.

“Being separated from these dear people is extremely difficult. I think every Iranian who has had these experiences knows what pain it causes in the hearts of human beings. It was the hardest decision of my life, and one I was forced to take.”

The pastor concludes by saying that while now “the types of pressures and stresses that we felt for so long are no longer there, still our first week [outside Iran] was really hard.

“There were a lot of memories: hope, picturing the eyes of the people you said goodbye to, the people whose absence is hard and won’t allow you to be very comfortable here. It’s true that you have no problem physically, but mentally you are somewhere else; those ‘belongings’ I talked about are somewhere else: they can never be left or forgotten. We hope to see them again one day.”