Only 48 hours after Article18 published news of the forced closure of a church in the northwestern city of Tabriz, the Assyrian representative to the Iranian parliament wrote an open letter to the President on Saturday, calling for it to be reopened.
“Mr. Rouhani, is this action befitting the dignity of the Islamic Republic of Iran, to treat the sacred places of Christians in such a way?” wrote Yonathan Betkolia.
Two days previously, Article18 had revealed that on 9 May agents from the Ministry of Intelligence and EIKO, an organisation under the direct control of the Supreme Leader, had stormed the church, changing the locks, tearing down the cross from the church tower and ordering the church warden to leave.
Betkolia’s letter urged the President “to urgently take the necessary steps to reopen the church and to repatriate and reinstall the Holy Cross, in order to console the [Christian] and other religious authorities of the country, as well as their followers”.
The letter appears to have come in direct response to the publication of this news, given that the church had already been closed for two weeks before Article18’s report.
The Assyrian representative, who has been criticised in the past for failing to speak out against abuses of religious freedom, is reliant upon the support of Assyrian Christians in northwestern provinces, including Tabriz.
Betkolia’s letter mysteriously refers to an unspecified “group” as the enactors of the church seizure, implying that this may have been an isolated and out of the ordinary incident.
The Assyrian representative has also been implicated in the closure of other Assyrian churches in the past. Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran, noted in his 2018 report that “multiple sources” had reported that Betkolia was “instrumental” in the 2009 closure of the Shahrara Assyrian Protestant Church in Tehran, due to its provision of Persian-language services.
Christians from Iran’s historic Assyrian and Armenian communities are a recognised minority, who are usually able to freely practise their faith, providing they don’t open their doors to Muslim-born Iranians by holding services in Persian.
The church, belonging to The Assyrian Presbytery, was officially “confiscated” by Revolutionary Court order back in 2011, but church members had until now been able to continue using the building for services in the Assyrian language.