An Iranian-Assyrian couple sentenced to a combined 15 years in prison for teaching Muslim converts about Christianity have finally been informed that their longstanding appeals have failed.
It’s been more than three years since Victor Bet-Tamraz was sentenced to 10 years in prison, in July 2017, and over two and a half years since his wife, Shamiram, was given a five-year sentence, in January 2018.
The human rights watchdog Article 18 reports that Assyrian-Iranians Pastor Victor Bet-Tamraz and his wife, Shamiram Isavi, were informed that they have lost their appeals and have been summoned to begin their sentences as both were out on bail.
Victor will celebrate his 66th birthday next month, and Shamiram turns 65 in December.
Their daughter, Dabrina, who now lives in Switzerland, has spoken repeatedly of her fears for her parents’ safety, should they be forced to endure time behind bars, especially given recent reports of a coronavirus outbreak in Tehran’s Evin Prison.
In 2017, Tamraz, the pastor of a Pentecostal congregation in Tehran, was sentenced to 10 years in prison after he was arrested during a Christmas celebration in 2014 and spent 65 days in solitary confinement. He was accused of acting against national security by conducting house church meetings and evangelizing.
Meanwhile, Isavi was sentenced to five years in prison in 2018 on charges of “membership of a group with the purpose of disrupting national security” and “gathering and colluding to commit crimes against national security.”
Since their sentencing, the couple have been summoned to countless appeal hearings, only for them to be cancelled for a variety of reasons including failure to officially summon every defendant, the court being “too crowded”, and the assigning of a new judge to the case.
Their last scheduled appeal hearing, on 1 June, was cancelled without excuse.
Another seven weeks of uncertainty passed until, finally, on 19 July, Victor received a telephone call from his lawyer, informing him that his appeal had been rejected and no further hearing would take place.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether the same was true in Shamiram’s case, though the couple feared it would be, given that their cases had been officially merged by the new judge, Ahmad Zargar, in February 2019.
Finally, on Tuesday, 11 August, their worst fears were confirmed as Shamiram was summoned to Evin to begin her sentence.
“Pastor Bet-Tamraz and Shamiram Isavi are innocent of the charges brought against them, but like other Christians in their position, they have been convicted for exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief,” Mervyn Thomas, chief executive of the London-based humanitarian nonprofit Christian Solidarity Worldwide, said in a statement.
“CSW urges the Iranian authorities to end the effective criminalization of Christian practices, to dismiss these charges and to release all who are detained on account of their religion or beliefs.”
In February, the couple’s son, Ramiel Bet Tamraz, was released from prison three months early after he was jailed for “spreading Christian propaganda.”
The couple’s daughter, Dabrina Bet-Tamraz, was among a group of participants in the July 2019 U.S. State Department Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom who met with Trump in the Oval Office. She asked Trump to advocate for her family members the next time he negotiates with the Iranian leadership.
Iranian society is governed by Islamic law and churches are banned from holding services in the nation’s most common language, Farsi. People caught attending underground house churches face arrest and many are arrested every year.
Iran ranks 9th on Christian support organization Open Doors 2020 World Watch list of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.