A Christian pastor who recently escaped a 10-year prison sentence in Iran by fleeing the country said the Iranian government has criminalized Christianity and considers the religion “fundamentally political.”
“It seems Christianity, or at least Protestantism, is considered fundamentally political,” Bet-Tamraz said during an interview with Christian watchdog Article 18 after his successful escape from Iran.
A longtime leader of the Assyrian Pentecostal Church of Iran, Bet-Tamraz was first arrested in 2014 when 70 Iranian intelligence agents raided his home. After a six-year long legal battle, he was recently sentenced to 10 years in prison. He escaped Iran with his wife on August 15.
The 65-year-old pastor said leaving his homeland was the “most painful” trip of his life, but that he was left with no choice after being sentenced to 10 years in prison last month.
“You can’t easily leave your homeland, where you grew up…I didn’t want to leave Iran at all. If they gave me two years, three years in prison, I would have endured it,” he said.
‘The pain is that you are persecuted for your beliefs’
While Iran is home to nearly 300,000 Christians, they are not free to worship, observe, practice, or teach their faith.
Bet-Tamraz said Iranian authorities “interfered in the affairs of the church many times” and that despite the community adhering to rules imposed upon them by the government, they were still under attack.
“We have always had this pressure, since two days after the [1979 Islamic] Revolution,” said Bet-Tamraz.
The Iranian authorities “really just don’t want active Christians to be there,” he added.
The constitution of Iran recognizes Shia Islam as the official religion of the country. While the government purports to protect religious minorities - like Christians, Sunni Muslims, Jews, Baha’i’s, and others – they are frequently subject to harassment, detention, flogging, and even execution.
“The pain is that you are persecuted for your beliefs,” said Bet-Tamraz, who spent 65 days in solitary confinement in Iran’s Evin prison, notorious for its human rights abuse.
His alleged crime was offering Christian worship services in Persian – the official language of Iran - in addition to Assyrian.
Bet-Tamraz’s church in Tehran was shut down in 2009 and he was later charged with “conducting evangelism” and “illegal house church activities” – acts that the Iranian regime considers threats to national security.
“We were told not to use the Persian language … for years I resisted this very much … this caused them to raid the church and close it,” Bet-Tamraz said, adding that he continued to hold services in his home until his arrest in 2014.
According to Bet-Tamraz, the government saw his case as “completely political and security-related.”
During his sentencing, the judge told Bet-Tamraz that he “acted against national security” through his Christian practice.
Bet-Tamraz’s immediate family – including his two children – have also been targeted by the Iranian government for their church activities.
Bet-Tamraz’s wife Shamiram was sentenced to five years in prison for allegedly training church leaders and pastors to act as spies. She now lives with Bet-Tamraz in an undisclosed location outside of Iran.
Their daughter Dabrina escaped Iran nine years ago after being arrested multiple times and now lives in Europe.
Their son Ramiel was released from an Iranian prison in March after serving time for organizing and conducting house churches.
Bet-Tamraz said that being separated from people dear to him in Iran, including his son, is “extremely difficult.”
“We hope to see them again one day,” he said.