FoRB on the Frontlines: “We were ready for one of the family to be killed”

Dabrina Bet-Tamraz is an Iranian Christian human rights defender who currently resides in exile in Europe. In her home country, her entire family faces intense pressure from the Iranian government; her father, mother and brother have been charged with national security-related crimes for participating in everyday religious activities.

Dabrina has dedicated her life to advocating for her family and others like them facing persecution in Iran. She has raised their cases at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, as well as with President Donald Trump when she attended the second annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in the USA. In this interview she sheds light on her experiences as a young Christian in Iran, and on the current situation for her family and other Christians in the country.

“Growing up as a Christian in Iran, it was always obvious we were treated differently. Until I was about ten, the church experienced a decade of severe persecution. Pastors were being killed, churches were under massive pressure, and my parents were regularly taken in for interrogation.

When I was a teenager we were constantly under surveillance; we were bugged and there were spies in the church. It began to make us question everything everyone says. We didn’t know who we could trust.

We were ready for one of the family to be killed. We knew it was a possibility and we discussed what would happen if one of my parents was killed, and what we would do. We were emotionally prepared.

In 2009 our church was closed. I was interrogated and imprisoned – charged with the usual ‘national security crimes.’ My father could get me out of Iran, and we decided it was best for me to leave the country. My parents could have fled the country as well, but they decided to stay and face the challenges. Over the past ten years the persecution has grown even worse.

Today my brother Ramiel is in Evin prison in Tehran. In January 2020 he was summoned to serve a four-month sentence for ‘actions against national security.’ He was arrested with four other Christians in summer 2016 as they picnicked together. (Editor’s note: Ramiel Bet-Tamraz was released from prison a few days early on 26 February, amidst concerns about the speed with which the Coronavirus was spreading inside Iran’s prison system.)

If he was a criminal and had done something wrong we’d understand it, but just for having a picnic with other Christians? It’s unjust.

Ramiel told me there are so many other Christians in prison with him – it’s like being surrounded by family!

Dabrina’s mother and father

My father has been sentenced to ten years in prison for ‘conducting evangelism’ and ‘illegal house church activities’, and my mother has also been given a ten-year sentence for ‘acting against national security’.

They are at home on bail at the moment, but have their final appeal hearing at the end of February. (Editor’s note: At the time of writing, Ms Bet-Tamraz’s parent’s final appeal hearing has been postponed due to a procedural error by the court.)

We’re not very hopeful their sentences will be dropped. They cannot go to church – there is no free Protestant church left in the country – so they have meetings at home. They are doing well considering the circumstances, but it is physically, emotionally and spiritually difficult for them. Both of them have suffered with medical conditions.

Christians in Iran are standing firm. Even though they are persecuted, threatened and tortured, they aren’t afraid to stand for their faith, but they still need our support.

The prayers, advocacy and financial support of members of the international community make it possible for Christians in Iran to keep going – that’s what motivates me to do what I do.

I would like to return to Iran one day. I know it won’t be the same, I’ve lost my roots, my home. I know I won’t be able to be rooted properly there, but I know I won’t be properly rooted here in Europe either.

So one day I want to go home.”


Turkey under Erdogan: Caught between secular and Islamic identities

Although Turkey’s constitution defines the country as a secular state, it is caught between its secular and Islamic identities. The current government has publicly endorsed a move towards a Sunni Muslim identity for the country, conflating religious and national identities, by combining the religious nationalism propagated by the ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, or AKP) with the secular Nationalist Movement Party (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi, or MHP)’s ideology of ‘ultra-nationalism,’ which is defined as “extreme nationalism that promotes the interests of one state or people above all others.”  

The promotion of religious ultra-nationalism in Turkey has contributed to a rise in discrimination, and in hate speech that incites violence against those who do not adhere to Sunni Islam.

Such incitement is visible in a variety of areas ranging from education and employment, to religious practices and day-to-day administrative procedures. There has also been a surge in the expression of anti-Semitism and anti-Christian sentiments in pro-government media.

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Long read: The history of religious persecution in Egypt

In November 2018, seven Coptic Christians were killed and 18 injured when terrorists attacked the bus they were travelling in to visit the Monastery of Anba Samuel the Confessor in Minya, Upper Egypt. The attack took place in the same location where 28 Coptic Christians were killed and 23 injured less than 18 months previously by masked gunmen who opened fire on the vehicles they were travelling in.

These violent attacks are part of a wider, longer term pattern of religious discrimination and persecution faced by Egypt’s Coptic community. The term ‘persecution’ is not used lightly; according to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, persecution is ‘the intentional and severe deprivation of fundamental rights contrary to international law by reason of the identity of the group or collectivity.’

In order to understand the root causes of religious persecution in contemporary Egypt, it is important to examine the ideological, socio-political and cultural factors that have historically underpinned the persecution of religious minorities in the country.

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Religious Identity and Conflict in the Middle East

The Arab Spring reignited a debate within the Middle East and in academic circles about the universality of human rights and their compatibility, or incompatibility, with culture and religion. Although the Arab Spring was marked by the rise of Political Islam movements, it also opened the door  to discussions on topics that had long been taboo, such as sectarianism, racism and gender equality in the Arab world.

Religion has dominated politics in the Middle East for centuries, and plays a significant role in the lives of individuals: their rights, opportunities and social status are all impacted by it.

Constitutions, laws, education systems and even art and sport are viewed through the lens of religion, and every effort is made to ensure that these elements of society comply with religious norms and symbolism.

Sectarianism remains a powerful political, social and cultural force, and the source of most conflicts in the Middle East. Many of the current conflicts in the region have deep historical roots – most notably the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict and the Sunni-Shi’a division.

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Shifting Alliances in Northwest Syria Make a Political Solution More Remote

In northwest Syria, religious minorities have suffered multiple attacks on their properties, places of worship and unknown numbers have been killed. The rights of small Christian and Druze communities that remain are likely to be further restricted by the rapidly changing political and military landscape in the area.

Talks in Astana, Kazakhstan

The Kazakh capital, Astana, has been the site of several rounds of talks organised by Russia, Iran and Turkey aimed at finding a political solution to the Syrian crisis. However, shifting power play between the different armed groups that constitute the rebel movement continues to throw up hurdles in the path towards peace.

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