Assyrian protesters a ‘cancerous tumour’ in Iran’s Christian community, says former MP

Assyrian protesters a ‘cancerous tumour’ in Iran’s Christian community, says former MP

The photograph used by state media in the interview with Mr Betkolia, showing the former MP standing alongside the flags of the Assyrian people (left) and the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The former parliamentary representative of Iran’s Assyrian minority has launched a barely believable attack on Christians inside and outside the country who have either participated in or encouraged participation in the ongoing protests.

In a lengthy interview with state media outlet ISNA, Yonathan Betkolia calls the “rioters” – the word used by regime figures to describe protesters – and those who have “incited” them a “poisonous fungus” and “cancerous tumour” that “must be operated on and separated from the Iranian Christian community”.

Mr Betkolia, who served five terms in the Iranian parliament, has for a long time been a controversial figure who has on many occasions toed the regime line, and this latest interview is no exception. 

The former representative begins the interview, when asked for his analysis of “the events that started with the death of Ms Mahsa Amini”, by not once mentioning the young woman by name or offering sympathy to her family, but instead launching straight into a criticism of the “opportunists”, as he calls them, who have used her death as an “excuse” to begin demonstrations, which, he says, have since been “diverted from their original path”.

For this reason, he says, he has always discouraged Christians from participating in demonstrations.

Mr Betkolia goes on to seemingly defend the mandatory hijab laws in Iran, which are also imposed upon non-Muslims – including Christians – by highlighting that Assyrian women, too, wear headscarves in church.

He then even thanks Iran’s security forces for, as he puts it, their “humane approach” towards Christians in warning Assyrians not to participate in further demonstrations.

This shows the Islamic Republic’s “positive and humane view of Christians”, Mr Betkolia says.

“I kiss the hands of these loved ones [Iran’s security forces],” he adds, “and pray God goes behind you and protects you.”

Mr Betkolia also heaps praise on Iran’s Supreme Leader, hailing him for the“small” but “impressive” gesture of once eating the homemade cake of an Assyrian woman. 

Ayatollah Khamenei’s “encouraging” and “sincere behaviour” “shocked the world”, Mr Betkolia says, and “more attention should have been paid to it”. 

Christians should “be grateful for having such a country and leader”, he says.

The former representative says he wishes the protests had “never happened”, and that “we would all join hands to fix our problems”.

“The way to solve problems is not to break and set fire to things,” he says, “or start controversies by sharing photos and videos in cyberspace.”

When asked by the interviewer whether there are “problems of disobedience” within the Assyrian community, Mr Betkolia blames the Covid-19 pandemic for decreasing the engagement of young Assyrians with the church, leading, he says, to a number – “no greater in number than the fingers of one hand” – “gathering and making plans for themselves … for which they were warned”. 

“I hope they stop their work,” he adds. 

Perhaps Mr Betkolia is referring here to the 40 to 50 young people recently warned by Assyrian church leaders, at the behest of the security services and Mr Betkolia’s successor, to have no further involvement in the protests.

Mr Betkolia says he wishes Assyrians were more self-critical, and that he regrets a lack of dialogue among the community and that Assyrian associations in various cities have not issued statements against the protests.

He also criticises the appointment of an Assyrian patriarch from the United States – a place he describes as having “a very different atmosphere from Iran”.

Meanwhile, he complains that he has been denied a visa to the US, where his children live.

Finally, when asked about what he thinks about those who “insist on breaking the rules”, the former representative says he wishes “to live in an environment that’s safe, calm and comfortable”. 

“I don’t like trouble by my side,” Mr Betkolia says. “When a bomb explodes, it harms all religious minorities.”

Article18’s director, Mansour Borji, called Mr Betkolia’s comments “preposterous”, given that the former representative once had the “audacity” at the UN in Geneva to claim that “under the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, race, ethnicity and religion do not distinguish among people [or bestow] superiority to one group over another”. 

Meanwhile, Mr Borji noted how a year before making these comments the former representative was “instrumental in the closure of the church led by his fellow Assyrian pastor, Victor Bet-Tamraz, solely because he had been conducting church services in the Persian language”. 

Mr Borji added that it was “highly hypocritical” of Mr Betkolia to “continuously criticise Western governments, and the US in particular”, while at the same time seeking a visa to the US, “where his children have chosen to live, away from the oppressive policies of the Iranian regime that he so generously praises – policies that have brought young people of the same age as Betkolia’s children onto the streets of Iran to protest for their basic rights”.

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