US to Iran: ‘Allow Christians to worship in peace this Christmas’

US to Iran: ‘Allow Christians to worship in peace this Christmas’

The US Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, Sam Brownback (right), speaking in Washington DC yesterday (Photo: Twitter @IRF_Ambassador)

Senior US officials have called on Iran to allow Christians to “worship in peace” this Christmas.

The US Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, Sam Brownback, speaking in Washington DC yesterday, noted how Christians often experience “increased harassment and arrests” at Christmas, which he called “attempts to intimidate them from celebrating in accordance with their beliefs”.

He added: “We call on the authorities to allow them to worship in peace.”

The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, highlighted the case of Victor Bet-Tamraz, an Iranian-Assyrian pastor arrested at Christmas time five years ago and later sentenced to ten years in prison for the peaceful practice of his faith.

Pastor Victor’s daughter, Dabrina, was another of the speakers at the event, which was titled: “Broken Promises: Reclaiming & Supporting Iranian Human Rights”

Dabrina spoke of the arrest, just two weeks ago, of two Christian men in Tehran.

“When they asked for an arrest warrant, the officers presented them instead with their guns, and said, ‘No you come with us quietly, or we’ll take you forcefully.’ They were arrested, kept in custody; they were not allowed to contact their families; they went through days of interrogation, verbal harassment, were spat on, were beaten, threatened to be physically tortured. Finally, they were charged with acting against national security because of their Christian activities. This behaviour has become the habit of the Iranian intelligence service,” Dabrina said.

Dabrina noted that there are at least 14 Christians currently in prison in Iran, “all deemed guilty of acting against national security, when the reality is that they were just gathering together to pray and worship, which is their right by the Constitution and the international covenants to which Iran is a signatory”.

At least 57 Christians have been arrested in Iran in 2019, Dabrina reported, while criminal cases against at least 48 other Christians – including her father, mother and brother – continue to “drag on indefinitely, with no resolution to their case”.

She noted how in the case of her parents, “it is now two and a half years since my father, Pastor Victor, was sentenced to 10 years in prison, while my mother, Shamiram Issavi, has been waiting two years for her own five-year imprisonment appeal to be heard”. 

Dabrina said this “lack of process and the lengthy waiting time is a torture to these people, to my family, and to all the others whose family members have been arrested for the peaceful practice of their faith”.

Dabrina concluded by saying that the future of Christianity in Iran is in “great peril” as a result of the “many contradictions” of the Iranian government, which “often contradicts itself, as well as the binding international covenants to which Iran is a party”.

‘Country of Particular Concern’

Mr Pompeo confirmed that Iran has been re-designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” by the US State Department for its abuses of religious freedom, saying: “The world should know Iran is among the worst violators of basic fundamental religious freedoms.”

He also announced new sanctions against two Iranian judges – Mohammad Moghiseh and Abolqasem Salavati, whom he accused of “heinous acts” and being “tools of the regime’s oppression”.

Both judges have given harsh sentences to prisoners of conscience, including Christians. For example, both presided over the case of Maryam Naghash Zargaran.

Judge Moghiseh has even become known as the “Judge of Death” for his harsh treatment of prisoners of conscience. 

In July, Judge Moghiseh increased the bail of five Christian converts tenfold because they insisted upon being defended by their own lawyer. All five Christians, alongside four others, were later sentenced to five years in prison.

Mr Pompeo also announced restrictions on visas for Iranian officials “responsible or complicit in the abuse, detention, or killing of peaceful protesters, or for inhibiting their rights to freedom of expression or assembly”. 

He added that the restrictions would also apply to their family members, saying: “Thugs killing people’s children will not be allowed to send their own children to study in the United States of America.”

Mr Pompeo accused Iran of “towering hypocrisy” for “so many human rights violations that defy its own domestic laws” and obligations as a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “no one shall be subjected to torture” or to “arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile”.

Earlier this month, Article18 joined with 39 other rights groups to call on the UN General Assembly to publicly condemn Iran for “grave human rights violations” including the unlawful killing of hundreds of peaceful protesters and detention of thousands more, as well as the “systematic” denial of religious freedom.

Mr Pompeo noted that this month marks 40 years since the ratification of the Iranian constitution, which as Article18 reported, enshrined discrimination along religious lines.

Although the constitution legally recognises the rights of three religious minorities – Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians – in reality even these recognised minorities are “denied their full freedoms” and treated as “second- or third-class citizens”, Mr Pompeo said.

The situation is even worse for unrecognised minorities, such as Baha’is and Christian converts, as Article18 has reported.