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ATLANTA—Deep inside the walls of Evin Prison in Iran’s capital city of Tehran, a team of officials guard as many as 15,000 inmates they deem some of the most dangerous offenders under the current Islamic regime.
The charges include murder, rape, and theft. For nearly 300 days in 2009, the offenders in Evin Prison also included a pair of young women facing a charge they didn’t deny: embracing Christianity.
Maryam Rostampour and Marziyeh Amirizadeh gained international attention after their arrests in Tehran in March 2009. Authorities charged the Christian women with apostasy, anti-government activity, and blasphemy—all capital crimes in the Islamic republic.
The arrests stemmed from a flurry of Christian activity over three years. The women, who met at a conference in Turkey in 2005, had spoken with many others about Christianity, and had hosted Bible studies in an apartment they shared near the prison. One Bible study, called “Mary Magdalene,” served prostitutes.
The pair also distributed some 20,000 New Testaments across Tehran and other cities. (These Farsi-language Scriptures offered an accurate translation that countered state-endorsed Bibles depicting Jesus as only a prophet.)
It’s unclear how much Iranian authorities knew about the women’s activities, but during a raid on their apartment, they confiscated Bibles and other Christian material. During interrogations, they pressured the women to cease all Christian activity.
They refused, and Amirizadeh remembers telling one interrogator: “Unless you cut out my tongue, I will keep feeding the people’s hunger for truth about Jesus.”
After intense international pressure, officials released the women after 259 days. They fled Iran to protect their families and friends, and gained refugee status to enter the United States in 2011. They chronicled their experience in their recently released book Captive in Iran and spoke with WORLD near their home outside Atlanta.
These days, they’re grateful for freedom in the United States, but they remain burdened for millions of Iranians living under an oppressive regime. “We feel that all of Iran is a prison,” said Amirizadeh. “It isn’t just about Evin.”
Indeed, the women’s arrest in 2009 marked a significant moment in a fresh wave of persecution against Christians in Iran. Last September human-rights experts at the UN confirmed what persecution watchdogs had reported for months: Iranian officials have intensified their clampdown on evangelical churches.
Sometimes that means intimidation or harassment, but the UN estimates Iranian authorities have also arbitrarily arrested and detained more than 300 Christians since 2010. Some Christian groups estimate the number is far higher.
The highest-profile cases have included Iranian Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani: Officials jailed him in 2009 for apostasy against Islam and sentenced him to death by hanging. (After intense international pressure, Iranian authorities released Nadarkhani in September 2012.)
Others remain in jail: Iranian-American Pastor Saeed Abedini has languished in Evin Prison since authorities arrested him while visiting his family in Iran last September. Abedini’s wife, who lives in Idaho with the couple’s two children, has spoken widely in the United States for his release.
Others receive less attention: For example, Iranian house-church pastor Farshid Fathi has been in Evin Prison over two years and faces four more years in his sentence. Officials deemed his Christian activities “actions against national security.” In a letter to his family last November, the husband and father of two children mentioned other Christians he met in prison.
“The narrow way that I am passing through I see as a cup that my Beloved has given me, and I will drink it to the end, whatever that end might be,” he wrote. “What really matters is that I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine.”
The same reality sustained Amirizadeh and Rostampour. The women endured deprivation, sickness, and threats in Evin Prison, but they cherished their faith in Christ and their opportunities to speak with dozens of other women about the gospel.
Those conversations—and their pre-arrest ministry in Tehran—gave the pair rare exposure to some of the most oppressed people in Iranian society: women with little protection and little hope. “For women, life is very stressful in Iran,” says Amirizadeh. “You always wonder what will happen next. You worry about everything.”
If Amirizadeh, 34, and Rostampour, 31, worried about their Christian activity in an Islamic regime, it doesn’t show. The pair grows animated when they talk about their three-year ministry in Tehran.
Both women grew up in Muslim homes in separate cities in Iran but professed Christianity after encountering the teachings of the Bible. Amirizadeh began attending a house church. Rostampour attended an Armenian church, one of the only official churches allowed in Iran. A pastor baptized her at midnight in a secret service in the basement of another church.
Though both women say they never embraced Islam, Iranian law forbids citizens from Muslim backgrounds to convert to Christianity. It also forbids promoting Christianity.
That’s a command the women wouldn’t heed. Instead, they launched a project to bring some 20,000 New Testaments into the country and to distribute them across Tehran and other cities. Since Bibles are scarce in Iran, they believed distributing Scripture was critical to expanding the country’s understanding of Christianity. (The London-based Elam Ministries provided support for the women’s ministry during their time in Tehran.)
On a recent afternoon, Amirizadeh pointed to a copy of a map that hung on the wall in their Tehran apartment. Hand-drawn circles and crosses showed all the places the women had distributed Bibles. For nearly two years, they walked the streets, quietly slipping New Testaments into mailboxes all over the city.
When they think about the miles they walked—sometimes through snow—they don’t mention fatigue or fear. “We had passion,” says Rostampour. “We were following our dreams.”
The pair’s work also included hosting Bible studies in their homes. One drew young people. Another drew poor women and prostitutes, a despised and beleaguered segment of Iranian society. Many of the women they met were widowed or divorced by their husbands.
With limited opportunities for women to support themselves, and others facing abandonment by their extended families, some turned to prostitution to provide for their children, says Amirizadeh: “They would say, ‘We don’t want to do this, but what can we do?’”
Amirizadeh, who worked in a beauty salon, planned to teach some of the women cosmetology, but after perhaps weeks of surveillance, police arrested the women at their apartment in March 2009. At the police station, authorities hung signs around their necks before snapping their photos. The signs bore their names and the charge: “accused of promoting Christianity in Iran.”
The women spent most of the next eight months in Evin Prison. In addition to violent criminals, it’s notorious for holding enemies of the regime—political opponents, human-rights activists, and religious minorities. The prison is infamous for torturing its inmates. (Abedini—the Iranian-American pastor—recently wrote a letter to his wife describing beatings and torture in Evin Prison.)
Conditions were deplorable: Cells were packed with crowding that went from “extreme to unimaginable” when authorities arrested thousands during the country’s disputed elections in 2009.
The food left many sick or undernourished. One regular meal was a stew of “water and fat” with a few unwashed vegetables. For those who did grow sick, medical care was meager and sometimes nonexistent. Both Rostampour and Amirizadeh suffered serious illnesses during their imprisonment. A doctor who disdained Christians barely treated them.
The wards included women guilty of murder, and gangs and lesbianism proliferated. But the wards also included women accused of writing bad checks or incurring bad credit. Without intervention from family or friends, most would remain there.
Many women had their children in prison with them. With no family to care for them, some children languished in the same conditions as their mothers.
Another shock: executions of cellmates. Amirizadeh grows emotional when she thinks about women executed during their imprisonment, including a close friend convicted of political activism. “In Evin Prison,” says Rostampour, “everything is a shock.”
Despite the shock and difficulties, the Christian women spent their days helping fellow prisoners (including giving their own food to sick prisoners) and talking with them about the gospel. They hosted afternoon gatherings in their cells to talk about the Bible and to pray. After years of enduring Islamic rule that oppresses women, Rostampour says: “They were so open when they heard about grace and a God that loves them. … They can’t believe that God loves them.”
Indeed, Amirizadeh says their imprisonment became their greatest opportunity for ministry in Iran: “We were more free inside the prison than on the outside.”
Still, those on the outside were working for their release. Rostampour’s sister talked with Voice of America radio about their plight, and Elam Ministries publicized their cases. Thousands of letters poured into the prison from all over the world, and though the women never saw them, they say guards would occasionally read them and ask questions like: “What does it mean that Jesus is a shepherd?”
The international attention mounted, including pressure from the UN. Authorities released the women in November 2009. The pair worried they would endanger their families and friends by staying, and they fled to Turkey in May 2010.
In Atlanta both take classes at a community college and hope to pursue studies in international law or journalism. (Rostampour spoke English before arriving, but Amirizadeh spent a year learning the language from scratch. Today, she speaks it with ease.)
They’ve largely recovered from their physical ordeal, though Amirizadeh still suffers back problems. Rostampour says the remaining challenges are mental and emotional. “Sometimes I don’t feel free, even though I am living in a free country,” she says, “because many people are still in prison in our country.”
The women say they’ll continue to speak out for Christians in Iran, especially those who have few advocates. They’ve seen the effectiveness of international pressure in their own cases, and they say it’s important to keep highlighting those who are suffering.
They also ask Christians to pray for those who remain in Iran. The women say they found many Iranians tired of Islam and open to Christianity. “For over 30 years it’s been darkness and wrong rules and suppression in Iran,” says Rostampour. “We should pray that people will see that hope and salvation can only come from God.”