Iran sees Christian as threat to national security


Christian Life

Cornelis Boon, RD

Dabrina Bet-Tamraz from Switzerland. The Iranian woman suffered persecution in her home land Iran. Photo RD

Iranian Christians are among the most persecuted faith groups in the world. What are they going through? A personal story.

"I faced oppression from a very early age", says Dabrina Bet-Tamraz. The 37-year-old lived in the Iranian capital Tehran until 2009, where her father was a pastor in an Assyrian church. Now Dabrina lives in Switzerland. She is a pastor there and helps political refugees from Iran as a human rights activist. Recently, she visited the Open Doors Conference at the European Parliament in Brussels.

What kind of oppression did you suffer when you still lived in Iran?

"As a teenager, I noticed people in the country looked down on Christians. For instance, classmates did not want to sit next to me. Teachers sometimes called me a pig, an unclean animal. Once, when I drank from a cup, a teacher threw it away afterwards. She said the cup was now so dirty that washing it didn't help.

Once, a teacher slapped me in my face because I was a Christian. I then shouted at him: God bless you! I don't know why I said that, but it helped. He stopped."

Your father was a pastor. Was he limited in his work?

"The Assyrian church, to which we belonged, has been recognised by the government. That means we are allowed to hold church services. But that is also all there is to say. My father was not allowed to preach in Farsi, the official Iranian language. Evangelising or admitting Muslim converts to the church community was strictly forbidden.

Moreover, the intelligence services constantly watched my family. My parents were taken by security officers and interrogated several times. In the church, the authorities placed spies.

In the 1990s, many Iranian pastors were murdered. My father was also arrested many times during that period. Regularly he did not appear on the pulpit, and someone else had to fill in for him at the last minute."

How does persecution take place in Iran?

Christians in Iran are among the most persecuted religious communities in the world. Faith communities such as the Assyrian, Armenian and Eastern Orthodox churches do enjoy official legal protection, as they have been in the country since ancient times. But de facto, they face severe restrictions on their religious freedom.

Recognised religious communities are allowed to hold church services. But not in Farsi: Iran's official language. Evangelising or admitting Muslim converts to church is absolutely forbidden.

As soon as the state believes that recognised Christians threaten "national security", they are rounded up. Raids, arbitrary arrests and detention are no exception among them. Moreover, things are getting worse. Previously, only pastors were at risk, but now, any Christian can be rounded up.


Recognised Christians form small communities, and their numbers are shrinking rapidly. For example, the Assyrian community still had 200,000 members in Iran in 1976, compared to 25,000 today.

In contrast, there is a new, rapidly growing group of several million unrecognised Christians, mostly Protestant. The regime sees them as a threat because many of them are Muslim converts. Unrecognised Christians have practically no rights. Police officers regularly raid the homes of Muslim converts and imprison and physically abuse them. In 2022, for instance, more than 100 unrecognised Christians have already been detained, several of whom received more than ten years in prison.

Why were the authorities bothering you when the Assyrian church is recognised by the government?

"Recognition does not mean you can do whatever you want. Recognised Christians are forced to act as puppets of the state.

Illustrative for me is how the only Assyrian MP condemned the recent protests in Iran. He said Christians who demonstrate are poison and cancer to the faith. That man is just like a mouthpiece of the Iranian authorities.

My family did not obey the government blindly. But those who do so, risk imprisonment."

How do Iranians relate to Christians?

"Iranians are naturally warm-hearted people. Although they initially have a certain fear of Christians, they become open as they get to know you better. I noticed that during my school period. When I invited teachers to attend church services, my maths teacher accepted the offer. He is also a Christian now."

Is the repression mainly coming from the government?

"In Iran, the government poses the biggest threat to Christians. But repression takes place very much under the radar. As a result, many Iranians do not even know that the government is repressing recognised communities. With propaganda, the government has extreme power to brainwash. They paint the picture of supporting recognised communities. For example, at Christmas, state television broadcasts that the Ayatollah attends a church service.

The government also pretends to arrest believers because they pose a threat to national security, not because of their Christianity. The government makes Iranians believe Christians are in the service of Zionist organisations spying for Israel and America. This is believed. I was sometimes asked, "Dabrina, are you a Zionist Christian?""

You eventually fled Iran. Why did you do so?

"In 2009, the authorities closed our church because my father preached in Farsi and opened church services to Muslim converts. We then started organising services at home.

I was at university at the time and was detained by policemen. They took me to a men's prison and forced me there to give information about our pastors and church activities. I also had to agree to criminal charges against my father and other pastors. If I would not comply, they threatened me with imprisonment, rape or even execution.

That year, I also experienced two car "accidents". A policeman warned me, "You won't survive the next accident."

Eventually, the intelligence services made it impossible for me to still live safely in Iran. In 2010, I fled to Switzerland."

Did your parents remain in Iran?

"When the authorities heard that my father was still preaching to Muslim converts at home, officers raided our house during a Christmas celebration in 2014 and arrested those present. They conducted a search and confiscated all the Bibles and personal belongings like mobile phones and passports.

My father was jailed for allegedly "acting against national security by establishing house churches". They shaved him bald to humiliate him. After 65 days of solitary confinement, he was released on bail.

In 2020, my parents fled the country. Actually, they wanted to stay, but in Iran, they faced ten years in prison. My brother still lives there."

How do you help Christians while living in Switzerland?

"In church and society, I try to raise awareness about the situation of Iranian Christians. For instance, I have twice addressed the UN and once visited the White House to speak with then-President Donald Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence."

There have been protests in Iran for six months now. Can they improve the situation of Christians in Iran?

"The protests do give me hope. There have been several demonstrations in Iran since 2009, but now they are on a larger scale and in almost every city in the country. Mass rallies are also taking place in Europe to draw attention to human rights in Iran. There were 80,000 people in Berlin in October and around 15,000 in Strasbourg in January.

But whether the protests improve the situation of Iranian Christians in the short term, I doubt. We see that Iranian Christians and protesters are fighting for the same principle. Both want to be free, and both are now oppressed by the authorities. This creates a sense of community."

What is your wish for Iranian Christians?

"I want freedom, justice and humane treatment for Iranian Christians. God's heart longs for justice. The Bible even says He hates injustice. As a believer, I want to fight for that cause."



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