US urges Iran to respect human rights after Christians flee country to escape prison

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The US is calling on Iran to respect basic human rights after a Christian pastor and his wife fled the country to escape prison.

Pastor Victor Bet-Tamraz, a longtime leader of the Assyrian Pentecostal Church of Iran, escaped the country with his wife Shamiram on August 15. He had been sentenced to 10 years in prison, and his wife five years, both for Christian activities. Christians in Iran are often persecuted from their religious practice.

US State Department Spokesperson Morgan Ortagus told Al Arabiya English Tuesday that Washington is “deeply saddened” Victor and Shamiram Bet-Tamraz were forced to flee Iran “after authorities upheld harsh prison sentences against them due to their faith.”

“Nobody should face abuse because of their religious beliefs or activities. Unfortunately, this is all too common in Iran, where many members of religious minority groups experience discrimination, harassment, and unjust imprisonment,” Ortagus told Al Arabiya English.

“We commend the Bet Tamraz family for courageously advocating for religious freedom in Iran and call on the Iranian government to respect this human right,” Ortagus added.

Shia Islam is the official religion of Iran and 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.

Pastor Bet-Tamraz’s story

Pastor Bet-Tamraz and his wife fled Iran where they, alongside an estimated 300,000 Christians in the country, are unable to freely worship, observe, practice, or teach their faith.

Now safe in an undisclosed location, Bet-Tamraz spoke out last week to nonprofit Christian watchdog Article 18, saying Iranian authorities “really just don’t want active Christians to be [in the country].”

“The pain is that you are persecuted for your beliefs,” said Bet-Tamraz whose alleged crime was offering Christian worship services in Persian – the official language of Iran - in addition to Assyrian.

The Christian pastor previously spent 65 days in solitary confinement in Iran’s Evin prison, notorious for its human rights abuse, after being arrested in 2014.

Iran shut down Bet-Tamraz’s Tehran church in 2009 and later charged him 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 sees the religion of Christianity as “fundamentally political.”

“It seems Christianity, or at least Protestantism, is considered fundamentally political,” Bet-Tamraz said.

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.

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