IRAN: Pastor Victor Bet-Tamraz and three converts given long prison sentences

victoraminkaviyanhadiA pastor and three converts to Christianity have been given long prison sentences. They are, from left, Pastor Victor Bet-Tamraz, Amin Afshar Naderi, Kaviyan Fallah-Mohammadi, and Hadi Askari.

The Christians were given ten and fifteen-year sentences, and were banned from leaving the country for two years after their prison terms. Pastor Victor and Kaviyan Fallah-Mohammadi are out on bail, but Amin Afshar Naderi and Hadi Askari remain in jail, where they have been since August 2016 – the judge raised the amount of bail for Naderi and Askari to 270 million tomans (€72,336).

Judge Ahmadzadeh, head of the 26th Branch of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran, issued his verdict on 3 and 4 July, following a hearing on 11 June. The defendants were not in court when the sentences were read out, but their lawyer was present and will appeal against the court’s decision. It is believed the appeal process could take up to two years.

Pastor Victor Bet-Tamraz was found guilty of charges including “conducting evangelism” and “illegal house-church activities” and was sentenced to ten years in prison. From an Assyrian background, he led the Tehran Pentecostal Assyrian Church until the Interior Ministry closed it in 2009. The Christians continued to meet in house churches.

Pastor Victor was arrested at a Christmas celebration at his home on 26 December 2014, along with his wife, son and twelve converts to Christianity. Most of the detainees were released that night, but Pastor Victor was charged with conducting illegal evangelism and held in Evin Prison in Tehran, mostly in solitary confinement, until he was released on bail on 1 March 2015. During his imprisonment he developed some health issues.

Amin Afshar Naderi was sentenced to 15 years in prison (possibly including time already served) – ten years for “acting against national security” and five years for “insulting the sacred” (blasphemy). He was first arrested at Pastor Victor’s Christmas celebration in 2014 and was charged with “conducting evangelism” and sent to Evin prison, where he was held mostly in solitary confinement until he was released on bail in February 2015. In August 2016, he was one of five Christians arrested at a picnic in Firuzkuh in the Alborz mountains, 150km north-east of Tehran. He has remained in prison since then.

Kaviyan Fallah-Mohammadi was sentenced to ten years in prison for “acting against national security” and “organising and conducting house-churches”. He was arrested at Pastor Victor’s Christmas celebration in 2014, was sent to Evin prison and was released on bail after a week.

Hadi Askari was sentenced to ten years in prison for “acting against national security” and “organising and conducting house-churches”. He is the only one of the four who was not present at the Christmas celebration. He was arrested in August 2016 at the picnic in Firuzkuh, and has remained in prison since then. Middle East Concern reported that he faced particularly intense pressure during interrogation.

christiansOf the five Christians arrested at the picnic (pictured, left to right, Mohamad Dehnay, Hadi Askari, Amin Afshar Naderi, Ramiel Bet-Tamraz and Amir Sina Dashti), two were released on bail in October 2016 (Mohamad Dehnay and Pastor Victor’s son Ramiel Bet-Tamraz) and Amir Dashti was released on bail in early December.

Pastor Victor’s wife and son await trial

Pastor Victor’s wife Shamiran Issavi Khabizeh and their son Ramiel Bet-Tamraz are both awaiting trial. In June 2017, his wife was summoned by the authorities and charged with “participating in foreign seminars” and “acting against Iranian national security” as a church member. She was released a day later on bail.

Ramiel Bet-Tamraz has been charged with “acting against national security” and “organising and creating house churches” as well as charges relating to his father’s ministry. Their hearings have not yet been scheduled. Middle East Concern says it is highly likely that their cases will be handled by Judge Ahmadzadeh.

Hunger strikes

On 5 February 2017, Amin Afshar Naderi and Hadi Askari went on hunger strike in prison to demand medical care and to protest about delays in their case. Askari had been refused treatment for a kidney infection. On 12 February, Naderi’s blood pressure dropped and he became very ill, but he was refused medical attention.

On 14 February, the head of the Attorney General’s office Ali Akbar Bakhtiari and his deputy visited Naderi and Askari in Evin Prison. They promised to investigate their case and those of others imprisoned for their religious beliefs, and Naderi and Askari were promised medical care. They ended their hunger strike.

However, on 11 July 2017, Mohabat News published an open letter to the authorities in which Amin Afshar Naderi states his intention to “terminate my life slowly” through hunger strike. In the letter, Naderi references a recent visit from foreign ambassadors to Evin prison, where he and Askari are being held, and says he was “hidden” from view. He wrote:

“What have I done against you and our country that made you hate me this much? I have learned from the Bible to love my enemies and to pray for those who hate me. But what have you actually learned?

 “I have learned not to speak in abusive language; what have YOU learned? You were using rude language during the interrogation, you made fun of my beliefs and attacked my monotheistic religion; I have never insulted you, not because I did not have the power to do so, but deep inside I have always prayed for your health.

 “You have written a report filled with lies, stating that I have insulted your religious beliefs! You even forced my prison inmates to accept and sign the confession! I just watched you and prayed for you.

 “It has been a year now that I have tolerated all the insults from my inmates, the prison guards and you all, while I have not done anything wrong and have been deprived of basic needs. However, I have always prayed for you to be fair and just. Not only did you not stick to any of your promises you gave in the court, in front of the pastor, my family, and all the people who were present, you hated me more and more every day and finally you hid me from the ambassadors of those selected countries you had in mind!

 “I have no words. Do whatever you want, like what you have done until now, but not according to justice, morality and law. There is one question in my mind, if we are actually what you say we are and we have insulted your religious beliefs and if your judicial process from the time of arrest to interrogation and court sessions were all lawful, then why are you hiding us from people? This is alright. I surrender to your cruel decision and I have decided to terminate my life slowly and that is why I am on hunger strike. I promise you not to cost any financial loss to you. I even deny to receive any medicine. I hope you feel little better by seeing my slow death and suffering.”

(Middle East Concern, Mohabat News, World Watch Monitor)