Pastor and Wife Escape Iran, Avoiding Prison Sentences

Editor’s note: Since this story was published, ChurchLeaders has learned that Pastor Victor Bet-Tamraz and his wife, Shamiram Isavi, escaped Iran only hours before Shamiram was due to start serving her sentence in Tehran’s Evin Prison. According to Article 18, the couple’s daughter, Dabrina, says the two are “safe and well,” although she will not say where they are. 

An Iranian-Assyrian pastor and his wife have learned that they must serve prison sentences of 10 and 5 years, respectively, for sharing their faith as Christians in Iran. The news comes years after Pastor Victor Bet-Tamraz and his wife, Shamiram Isavi, were first sentenced and after the continual postponement of their appeals.

“Pastor Bet-Tamraz and Shamiram Isavi are innocent of the charges brought against them,” said Mervyn Thomas, chief executive of human rights organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW). “But like other Christians in their position, they have been convicted for exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief. CSW urges the Iranian authorities to end the effective criminalisation of Christian practices, to dismiss these charges and to release all who are detained on account of their religion or beliefs.”

Living as Christians in Iran

Victor Bet-Tamraz and Shamiram Isavi were leaders of Tehran Pentecostal Assyrian Church until 2009 when Iranian authorities ordered Bet-Tamraz to either stop holding services in Farsi or to close the church. Because most Iranians speak Farsi, prohibiting churches from holding services in that language is one way officials attempt to prevent the spread of the gospel. After spending some time in prayer, the pastor decided the church would close.

Mansour Borji, spokesperson for the Alliance of Iranian Churches, said that after the church officially closed, Bet-Tamraz “continued his religious activities.” According to Barnabas Fund, it seems at that point he took the church underground.

On December 26, 2014, authorities arrested Bet-Tamraz, along with two other Christian converts, at a Christmas celebration. Those present included the pastor, his wife, his son, and 14 guests who were Christian, Muslim, and Zoroastrian. After searching the premises, videotaping the guests, and confiscating some personal items, agents arrested the three men on the grounds they had “participated in an illegal gathering.” Bet-Tamraz went to Tehran’s Evin prison for 65 days where he shared the gospel with his fellow inmates as he was able, although he spent most of his time in solitary confinement. He was released after posting bail, somewhere between $30,000 and $90,000.

Borji says it has become common for the government to arrest Christians in Iran at gatherings during the Christmas season:

The government is very sensitive about these days and even tells Farsi-language churches in advance that they can only have one gathering for Christmas, because they are worried that because of the Farsi language [used in the sermons], regular people would also come to church and listen to what is being said.

In 2017, authorities sentenced Bet-Tamraz to 10 years in prison for “conducting evangelism” and “illegal house-church activities.” He was forbidden to leave the country for two years and began the appeal process, projected to take anywhere from two months to two years.

That same year, Shamiram was summoned by the court and released on bail in the amount of about $33,000. In January 2018, she received a sentence of five years in prison on charges of “acting against national security by establishing and managing ‘house churches,’ participating in Christian seminars abroad, and training Christian leaders in Iran for the purposes of espionage.”

In the time since their sentencing, the pastor and his wife have had their appeal hearings scheduled and postponed many times and for various reasons, but now their chances to appeal  are over. Bet-Tamraz, who will turn 66 next month, learned from his lawyer on July 19 that his sentence had been upheld. The couple had no news about Shamiram, who will turn 65 at the end of the year, until Aug. 11 when she received a summons to begin her sentence. Officials gave her until Aug. 16 to turn herself in.