Dabrina Bet-Tamraz responds to claims Christians in Iran enjoy equal rights

Dabrina Bet-Tamraz responds to claims Christians in Iran enjoy equal rights

As the Iranian state propaganda machine continues to churn out the message that Christians in Iran enjoy equal rights and “full religious freedom”, Article18 talks to campaigner Dabrina Bet-Tamraz, who was specifically mentioned in a recent video by state-sponsored media. 

The Press TV report said Dabrina’s story “is not news” and that her father, Victor, while facing a jail sentence, “hasn’t even seen the inside of a prison”. In fact, Victor Bet-Tamraz spent 65 days in solitary confinement following his arrest at Christmas 2014.

The Bet-Tamraz family are ethnic Assyrians, who alongside Armenians are considered a “recognised” minority in Iran and are therefore afforded some freedoms. However, Dabrina says this doesn’t equate to equal rights, highlighting the “continuous harassment” faced by her parents, Victor and Shamiram, who are now facing years in prison as a result of their religious activities.

A18: What is your response to the latest video by Iranian state-backed media, which directly references your recent advocacy efforts and the case against your father?

Dabrina: My family has been a target of continuous harassment for as long as I can remember. Today, members of my family, my close friends and relatives, are facing persecution and severe restrictions because of their faith. A number of my friends are either in prison or awaiting trials. There are a number of Christian believers in Iran facing sentences – long-term sentences and harsh sentences – for the peaceful practice of their faith.

A18: The Press TV report says that you have claimed you are a survivor of religious persecution, suggesting this is not the case. What do you say to this?

Dabrina: I have been followed by the government, monitored. My pictures have been taken. I’ve been harassed, threatened. I’ve been called out from university and interrogated several times in various places, unofficial offices. I was detained the last time in the male detention centre without any female officer being present.

I was pressured to cooperate with the government, providing information, details about our church activities, our leaders. I was pressured to sign papers against my own family. I haven’t been persecuted as hard or suffered persecution as hard as my family have, or many other believers, church leaders and just Christians in Iran, but I have tasted a little bit of the bitter restrictions and persecution because of my faith – while I was in Iran. 

A18: The reporter also says that while your father faces a prison sentence, he hasn’t seen the inside of a prison. Is that true?

Dabrina: He has seen it for a very long time. He was for 65 days kept in solitary confinement in different cells and finally moved to a “suite”, they call it, where there are 10-20 prisoners in one room in a very unhealthy condition. 

Not only my father, my brother was in prison for two months, my mother has been arrested and interrogated. My uncle and many other friends and relatives of mine have been imprisoned and sentenced and charged with false charges.

A18: They claim that Armenians and Assyrians and other minorities are treated equally. Is that true? When they say, ‘They’re absolutely free in their religious rituals in Iran and face no limitation,’ would you agree with that?

Dabrina: No, I wouldn’t agree with that. The Iranian government has divided Christians into two categories – recognised and unrecognised Christians. The recognised Christians are mainly the traditional, Orthodox, Catholic or some Evangelical Christians – Assyrians, Armenians, who are allowed to gather together, but with very limiting restrictions, such as they’re not allowed to have Farsi Bibles in the church, or Farsi literature. They are being monitored and interrogated very closely and have to be very careful with their actions.

Unrecognised Christians, who are Evangelicals, Assemblies of God, Protestants, these believers are not recognised as even minorities in the country and are facing severe restriction and discrimination for their faith. Most of these pastors, leaders and regular believers have been forced to leave the country after their churches were shut down.

And like my own family, my own relatives have either left the country or are very restricted in their gatherings in Iran – in finding jobs and making a living. So the life for Christians is not easy in the country. For some it’s a little bit easier, but it’s not the same rights as a normal Iranian citizen.

A18: An Assyrian bishop interviewed in another recent Press TV video says his church can conduct all its services and courses freely. Your father was also once head of an Assyrian church in Iran. Was he able to work freely, without hindrance?

Dabrina: Not as far as I can remember. My father has always been interrogated, questioned, limited. We went through a very difficult time in the early, late 90s, where pastors and Christians were persecuted and murdered even. We have always faced restrictions and limitations to our gatherings and assemblies. My father had to often give answers about his meetings, about his services. We were afraid to conduct services in Assyrian and in Farsi, and my father served both people groups for years. But since 2009 this was declared as illegal and they shut down our church in Tehran, and other churches followed until 2014 when all Evangelical churches offering services in the Farsi language were shut down. And today he is completely not allowed to get together to have a church meeting. He wasn’t even allowed to officiate my brother’s wedding – his own son’s wedding. 

A18: Your parents are still awaiting the outcome of their appeals. It’s been a very long process. How has this long period of waiting, and not knowing what will happen, impacted them?

Dabrina: It is absolutely nerve wracking and it’s also torture for them. My mother has suffered with heart problems, with nerve problems. Every time that they get a new court hearing, there’s so much nervousness and there’s so much anticipation of what’s going to happen, then nothing happens, the next court hearing. It’s been years now that they haven’t processed their cases. It’s very hard on them. It’s like a mental torture for my parents.

A18: And how has it been for you, as you have been advocating their case and also raising awareness of the situation of ordinary Christians in Iran. How has this impacted you?

Dabrina: It has left all of us really in limbo, not knowing what is going to happen, what we’re going to do. We can’t even plan to meet each other, because every time there’s a new court hearing or there’s a new process, we say, “Well, we have to wait and see.” We can’t plan for the future. We can’t move around, we can’t meet each other. I haven’t seen my parents for years now.

And not knowing what’s going to happen… My father is 65 years old, my mother is 64 years old. They’re not that young anymore.

And now in November they will have their next court hearing. I just don’t want to imagine … My father really hopes that the charges will be dropped.

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