Senior Assyrian Pastor Arrested at Christmas in Tehran
The month of December marks a great celebration for Christians all around the world. In Iran, however, in addition to Christmas festivities, this month brings intensified government pressure, surveillance and threats on churches and Christian believers, especially Farsi-speaking Christian converts, reports Mohabat News.
Tens of Iranian security officers raided the residence of an Assyrian Christian in western Tehran the day after Christmas, arresting him and two other believers, interrupting the Christmas celebration being held there.
Mohabat News sources reported that plain-clothed security officers raided Pastor Victor Bet-Tamarz's house on December 26, 2014 at 5:30 p.m., introducing themselves as agents of the Revolutionary Court. They interrupted the Christmas celebration underway and temporarily arrested all in attendance.
The authorities separated men from women and searched them bodily, seizing all Bibles, cellphones, and pieces of identification.
Bet-Tamarz is a recognized Assyrian Pastor based in Tehran. He had invited his fellow believers to his home to celebrate Christmas. Apparently, the authorities deemed such a gathering to be "unauthorized and illegal", thus interrupting it.
All detainees were asked to fill out an eight-page form printed on papers with the logo of the Ministry of Intelligence. Among those arrested were Christian converts with a Zoroastarian background who refused to fill out the forms arguing that this was a written interrogation and could result in a criminal record for them. They said they had not broken any law and should not be subject to interrogation.
Those arrested in that incident included Pastor Victor, his wife and son, who recently returned home from abroad to spend Christmas with family, Suzan, her parents and sister, as well as Mahna, Afshin, Meysam, Kavian of a northern Iranian church, Sahar, Jamshid and Mohammad together with their wives.
(Mohabat News withholds last names of above mentioned individuals for their protection).
The reports indicate that plain-clothed authorities addressed one another with ambiguous titles to hide their real identity. There were also two female agents present, who conducted the body searches on female detainees. Additionally, all detainees were filmed and asked to introduce themselves to the camera and say why they were there and why they thought they were being arrested.
Pastor Victor himself, his wife, Shamiram Isavi, and their son, Ram-eil, were questioned as well. In addition, authorities searched their house thoroughly and confiscated their computer, cellphones, and books. When all was over, they arrested Pastor Victor and took him to Evin prison's detention center. There have been no updates on Pastor Victor's situation and well-being at the time of drafting this report.
In addition, an informed source told Mohabat News that one of the Christian converts arrested in that incident, named Amin, was taken to a car to be questioned privately. Then a few officers took him to his house to search there. There are also no reports on his whereabouts after officers took him from Pastor Victor's place.
After security authorities were finished gathering the completed forms and filming the incident, all detainees except Pastor Victor and Amin were released, but were warned that they may be summoned to the office of the Intelligence Ministry for further investigation.
Pastor Victor's Ministry Among Farsi-speakers Led to his Dismissal
Pastor Victor Bet-Tamarz is an Assyrian pastor, and his pastoral role is officially recognized by the Iranian government. He has been a diligent minister in Iranian Pentecostal churches. He served in Urumia for years before he moved to Tehran to serve as General Superintendent in Shahr-Ara Pentecostal Church.
Shahr-Ara Pentecostal Church in Tehran had been holding Farsi-speaking services for years until authorities shut down Farsi services on March 31, 2009. Farsi-speaking Christian converts had shown amazing interest in those services and filled the pews every week. It is noteworthy that the Assyrian Member of Iran's Parliament (Majles), Jonathan Betkolia, played a key role in the closure of the Shahr-Ara Church. In fact, according to many local sources as well as a WikiLeaks document published on September 30, 2009, PM Betkolia asked an Iranian Court to close three Assyrian Pentecostal Churches including Shahr-Ara, mainly for their involvement in ministry and evangelism among Farsi-speaking Iranians. At the time Mr. Betkolia told the leaders of these churches they would only be re-opened if they banned non-Assyrians from their services and discontinued all services in Farsi. Church leaders, including Pastor Victor did not give in to this demand, thus their churches remain closed.
Influenced by Parliament Member Betkolia, the Council for Assyrian Churches in Iran demoted Pastor Victor from his pastoral role and forced him to abandon official ministry. Having a serving heart, he preferred to stay away from official church duties and continue his fellowship outside the official churches.
December is a special month for Christians around the world as they celebrate the birth of their Lord and Saviour. It is in this month that Christians prepare themselves to celebrate this special occasion, give thanks and worship at churches with their families and fellow believers. Iranian Christians also celebrate Christmas, in spite of fear of getting arrested or harassed by government officials.