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WikiLeaks: 2009-09-30: 09ISTANBUL370: Iran/Religious Freedom: Assyrian Pentacostal Churches Shut Down

by WikiLeaks. 09ISTANBUL370: September 30, 2009.

Posted: Tuesday, December 31, 2013 at 09:28 AM UT


Viewing cable 09ISTANBUL370, IRAN/RELIGIOUS FREEDOM: ASSYRIAN PENTACOSTAL

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Reference ID Created Classification Origin
09ISTANBUL370 2009-09-30 13:16 CONFIDENTIAL Consulate Istanbul
VZCZCXRO9798
PP RUEHBC RUEHDE RUEHDIR RUEHKUK RUEHTRO
DE RUEHIT #0370/01 2731316
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
P 301316Z SEP 09 ZDS
FM AMCONSUL ISTANBUL
TO SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 9234
INFO RUCNIRA/IRAN COLLECTIVE
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 ISTANBUL 000370 
 
C O R R E C T E D C O P Y (ADDING ADDL ADDRESSEE) 
 
SIPDIS 
 
LONDON FOR MURRAY; BERLIN FOR ROSENSTOCK-STILLER; BAKU FOR 
MCCRENSKY; ASHGABAT FOR TANGBORN; BAGHDAD FOR POPAL; DUBAI 
FOR IRPO 
 
E.O. 12958: DECL: 09/29/2024 
TAGS: PHUM PREL PINS PGOV TU IR
SUBJECT: IRAN/RELIGIOUS FREEDOM:  ASSYRIAN PENTACOSTAL 
CHURCHES SHUT DOWN 
 
Classified By: ConGen Istanbul Deputy Principal Officer Win Dayton; Rea 
son 1.5 (d) 
 
1.  (C) Summary:  According to the pastor of the largest 
Protestant Evangelical Church in Turkey (who also oversees 
the global church's evangelical missions in the Middle East), 
the Iranian Majles's Assyrian community representative, 
Jonathan Betkolia, asked an Iranian court in March 2009 to 
close the three Assyrian Pentecostal churches in Iran.  The 
Majles member told the Church leaders that the Assyrian 
Pentecostal Church could only re-open if it agrees to bar 
non-Assyrian Christians from attending services, but the 
church refused and remains shuttered.  Our contact visited 
Iran in early September to discuss the issue with church 
leaders.  He returned to Turkey having concluded the closure 
is at an impasse, as church leaders neither want to pursue 
the case in Iranian courts, nor launch an international 
media/NGO campaign to pressure the regime, nor can they agree 
to the regime's conditions for re-opening.  Comment:  Our 
contact was not optimistic about prospects for a near-term 
re-opening of the churches, but would welcome USG advice on 
whether there are other steps that the church could take that 
might lead to a positive outcome. End summary. 
 
2.  (C)  ConGen Istanbul's NEA Iran Watcher met September 24 
with Ihsan Ozbek (please protect), the pastor of the Kurtulus 
Protestant Church in Ankara, reportedly Turkey's largest 
Protestant evangelical church.  Ozbek also serves as Chairman 
of the Alliance of Protestant Churches in Turkey and on the 
board of the "Foursquare Evangelical Church", a worldwide 
evangelical organization headquarters in California.  Ozbek, 
a Consulate contact on religious freedom issues, recently 
returned from a visit to Iran in his capacity as the Middle 
East coordinator for the Foursquare Missions' global 
outreach.  (According to Ozbek, the Assyrian Pentecostal 
church in Iran is affiliated with the Foursquare Evangelical 
Church.) 
 
Assyrian Pentecostal Christian Churches in Iran Closed 
------------------------------------ 
 
3.  (C) Ozbek described the Assyrian Christian community in 
Iran, a population estimated around 20,000, as diverse and 
divided.  The community is comprised of a number of 
denominational churches that more often treat each other as 
competitors and rivals rather than supporters or 
co-religionists.  The Assyrian religious community includes 
the orthodox Assyrian Church of the East, as well as Assyrian 
Anglican, Evangelical, Presbyterian, and Assemblies of God 
churches.  According to Ozbek, the Assyrian Pentecostal 
Church has three to four thousand members in Iran, located in 
three main locations: Tehran, Urmia, and Kermanshah.  The 
Tehran Church -- called the Shahrara Church -- is the 
largest, with seven to eight hundred members. 
 
4.  (C) Ozbek told us that in mid-March, Majles member 
Jonathan Betkolia (who holds the one Majles seat reserved 
specifically for the Assyrian community's representative) 
asked Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Court to order the 
Assyrian Pentecostal Churches to close.  Accompanied by 
several dozen police and Interior Ministry officials, 
Betkolia delivered the closure notice in person to the 
Shahrara Church's pastor, Victor Tamraz, seizing the keys to 
the church and installing new locks on the doors.  Interior 
Ministry police also closed the churches in Urmia and 
Kermanshah.  The court's closure order asserted that the 
churches were allowing non-Assyrians to attend services, and 
that in the course of such services church pastors including 
Tamraz were preaching to and converting Iranian Muslims. 
According to Ozbek, the Shahrara Church had been offering 
services in Farsi since 2000, in addition to its traditional 
Aramaic-language services.  Majles member Betkolia reportedly 
told Tamraz that the courts will only allow the church to 
resume operations if the church promises only to preach to 
Assyrian Christians and agrees to bar other Iranians from 
attending.  Pastor Tamraz refused, and the three Pentecostal 
churches have remained shuttered. Ozbek told us that 
Pentecostal services since then have occurred in worshippers' 
homes. 
 
5.  (C) Ozbek assessed that Betkolia's involvement in 
directing the closure of the Assyrian Pentecostal Church may 
have been motivated in part by a desire to keep the wider 
Assyrian community as deferential as possible to the regime's 
strict approach towards "recognized" religious minorities in 
Iran.  According to Ozbek, as long as a recognized Christian 
church only preaches to believers from its own ethnic and 
religious community, and forswears preaching to ethnic 
Persians or anyone born a Muslim, the regime usually leaves 
 
ISTANBUL 00000370  002 OF 002 
 
 
that church alone. 
 
"How can we re-open without abandoning our principles?" 
-------------------------------------- 
 
6.  (C)  Ozbek traveled to Iran in early September at the 
request of the Foursquare Evangelical Church headquarters in 
California to discuss the issue with Tamraz and other 
Assyrian Pentecostal Church officials.  The Shahrara church, 
with Ozbek and the Foursquare Ministry's support, continues 
to take the position that it cannot agree to the Islamic 
Revolutionary Court's demand that it bar non-Assyrian 
Christians from attending its services.  "How can we re-open 
if we have to abandon our principles to do so?"  Instead, 
Ozbek suggested to Tamraz that the church challenge the 
closure notice in the Iranian court system as falling beyond 
the scope of the laws governing church operations. 
(According to Ozbek, the laws do not explicitly require 
Christian churches to actively bar individuals or specific 
groups from attending services, though he acknowledged that 
Iranian laws do explicitly prohibit proselytizing to and 
converting Muslims, an act that can be punishable by death.) 
Ozbek did not think the Assyrian Pentecostal Church would 
pursue the case in Iranian courts, however, and concluded 
that the issue was at an impasse. 
 
7.  (C)  Ozbek solicited our advice, asking if the USG can 
suggest any steps the church could take that might persuade 
the regime to allow it to re-open, short of a church promise 
to bar non-Assyrian Christians from attending services.  He 
said church leaders are not currently interested in 
generating much attention with NGOs, because they fear that 
an international media campaign on this specific issue would 
put the church's future operations at even greater risk. 
Instead, Ozbek speculated that a quiet diplomatic campaign 
involving countries that enjoy some influence with Iran, 
encouraging Iran to allow the re-opening of the church as a 
confidence-building, humanitarian gesture, would have a 
slightly higher -- though still small -- likelihood of 
success. 
 
Comment 
------- 
 
8.  (C) Throughout our discussion, Ozbek took pains to 
acknowledge that unlike some other persecuted groups in Iran 
such as the Bahai'i community, Assyrian Pentecostal Church 
members have not recently been subject to direct harassment, 
detention, torture, or other physical abuse.  The nature of 
the regime's discrimination against the Assyrian Pentecostal 
church is more institutional, and more focused on enforcing a 
redline ("don't open your doors to Muslims") that although 
illegal and arbitrary is at least clear and long-standing. 
As Ozbek explained to us, because this conflict is driven in 
part by internal divisions within the Assyrian community, as 
long as the regime enjoys the cover of a compliant Assyrian 
Majles member as its spokesperson on this issue it can deny 
that it is discriminating against the Assyrian Christian 
community as a whole.  Ozbek understands that with the 
international community focused primarily on Iran's nuclear 
program and secondarily on the election outcome, protests, 
and consequences, there is probably little attention or 
appetite left for a diplomatic campaign to pressure Iran on 
this "small-scale problem."  As a result, Ozbek does not 
expect a positive resolution in the near-term to the 
Pentecostal church closures, but he agreed to stay in contact 
with us on this issue as it develops.  End comment. 
WIENER

 



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