Maryam Rostampour and Marziyeh Amirizadeh spent a harrowing eight months in one of Iran's most notorious prisons because of their Christian faith. Born and raised as Muslims, both women grew unsatisfied with the teachings of the Koran and converted to Christianity after personal encounters with Jesus.
Sensing a call from God, Marziyeh and Maryam spent several years in Tehran passing out Bibles and talking about Jesus. They were arrested in 2009 for promoting Christianity, and were ordered to renounce their faith or face execution. Refusing to turn from Christ, the women spent almost a year in the women's ward of Evin Prison, where they saw the harsh effects of Islamic law on women and, consequently, found hearts that were open to the hope of Jesus.
After international pressure from the United Nations, Amnesty International, and other human rights groups, the women were released in November 2009. They left Iran to continue ministry through writing and speaking in the United States, and they are currently seeking U.S. citizenship while living near Atlanta, Georgia. Freelance reporter Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra spoke with both women about their memoir, Captive in Iran: A Remarkable True Story of Hope and Triumph Amid the Horror of Tehran's Brutal Evin Prison (Tyndale Momentum).
For several years you passed out Bibles and talked about Jesus in Iran, which is illegal there. Was it inevitable that you would be arrested and imprisoned?
Marziyeh: We both had the same vision from God for evangelizing Iranian people by distributing Bibles. God showed me how Iran is like land that needs seed. He told me, "I will raise and grow this." Maryam also had a dream about this, so we became sure it was God's will.
We decided to cover all parts of Tehran. We usually went at night and distributed Bibles into mailboxes. Every day we went shopping or to restaurants and talked to people, often handing them a New Testament. We also started a house church for young people and another for prostitutes. All of this is illegal and dangerous because no one is allowed to talk about any religion except Islam.
During this time, we could see God's miracles every day. We have many stories of how God protected us.
Maryam: For the first two years, we were just distributing Bibles. We sometimes had thousands of New Testaments in our basement. After those two years, we started two house churches. It was good because the day they arrested us we just had 190 books in our apartment. If we had had 7,000 New Testaments in our apartment that day, they would never have released us.
In the months before you were arrested, you said you had inexplicably been unable to evangelize. Was that discouraging for you?
Maryam: Exactly two months before we got arrested, we didn't have any passion for evangelizing people. It was very hard for us, because in the first few years, we had so much passion in our hearts for talking to people about Jesus. But during the last two months we didn't have any interest.
Once I told Marziyeh that I would carry 10 New Testaments to the mountain outside Tehran, because there are always many people there. I went to the mountain, and after two to three hours I went home. I couldn't give even one New Testament to anybody. We knew something would happen, that there would be a change in our lives. We thought maybe our mission was going to change. We didn't know we were supposed to go to prison.
After we got released we heard from one of the security police that they were watching us for two months before arresting us. But they couldn't prove we were handing people Bibles. We believed it was God's protection for us.
You wrote that what you saw in Iran (both in prison and out) was the real Islam. What is that?
Marziyeh: We were raised as Muslims, and we know Islamic rules. When we were in school they taught us about the Koran and other Islamic rules. I always had many questions about these verses. There are many verses about war against other religions. There are verses that let men beat their wives if they don't obey. There are also many verses about temporary marriages (one-hour marriages that allow men to sanction prostitution). We could see the impact of these rules of Islam in our country from childhood. But when we were in prison, we could see how these rules affected women's lives and caused them to go to prison.
Maryam: When we talk about real Islam and real Muslims, we mean those people who follow rules based on the Koran and the verses in the Koran. Some people are just born as Muslims. Other Muslims really act as a Muslim, and their action is based on verses in the Koran.
For example, when were in prison, they invited a university professor in to convince us to deny our faith. He told me that if I was one of his family members he wouldn't wait for the court's decision—he would have killed me himself. Real Muslims believe in each verse in the Koran.
Several times you were told about possibility of execution, but you don't dwell on it. How did you deal with the threat of death hanging over your head?
Marziyeh: We went to something like 10 courts, and in each court the judges would threaten us with execution.
Maryam: Our first night in prison, we both were so scared. We couldn't talk because our mouths were too dry. We had no power to speak. And it was even worse because police are not like the police here in the United States. Even their faces and their behavior are scary. If they looked at you, you were scared.
The first thing the security police tried was physical torture. They put us in a dark, cold cell and said they would come to torture us. We were so scared, and we believed they would come and torture us. We just hugged each other and said goodbye, thinking it was the last day for us. We began to pray for each other. After hours of praying and singing, we could feel God's peace in our hearts. But it was not easy.
You can never imagine how scary it was. Every day was mental torture. In interrogation they threatened our families, which was even worse than hearing about execution.
What is the hardest part about being in prison for your faith?
Marziyeh: The hardest part was the execution of other prisoners. I never experienced such a difficult thing. After the execution, there was this spirit of sorrow and death everywhere, and sometimes we couldn't say anything. Everyone was under pressure.
You write that many of your fellow prisoners were interested in your faith. Did prison end up being fertile ground for the gospel?
Marziyeh: Prison is the place where most people are hopeless. They all need someone to save them. Most of them are open to hear about Christianity. Some gave their hearts to Jesus and promised us to find a Bible after they got released. Others were asking us to pray for them. One of the reasons some didn't want to confess their faith was that they could see two Christians in prison for their faith. And the behavior of guards and prison manager was different with us. They believed we were infidels and dirty, so they treated us very badly.
Maryam: But after a few months their behavior completely changed, and even those who considered us dirty came to us and apologized and asked us to pray for them. They could see miracles happening in answer to our prayers. They could see a difference between their prayers and ours. We didn't try to show them the rules. We just tried to love them. These behaviors had a great affect on most prisoners and even the guards.
Before we were imprisoned, we would ask God to show us whoever he chose, and that we would be able to talk to those people. But detention and prison increased those opportunities, since it was like a church every day. We gathered and prayed. It was easier to evangelize because we were already in prison. We had no fear of talking to prisoners about our faith.
Also, one of our house church groups was for prostitutes. In Iran it is very difficult to find prostitutes. We started with two, and they introduced other friends to us. But prison is full of prostitutes and addicted people. Outside prison we were looking for them, but inside there were many prostitutes, and we could see God's miracles every day.
You write that prisoners are not the only ones who are captive in Iran because of the repressiveness of the regime. What's your vision for a free Iran?
Marziyeh: These days we believe Iran is a big prison. There are many, many prisoners, and not just in Evin Prison. There is a darkness everywhere in Iran because of Islam. Our dream, our prayer for Iran is that one day it will be free, that every single person could express his or her opinion and choose how to worship God. We pray that one day Iran would have a righteous government and that people can find the truth about God.
Part of the way you coped was focusing on getting through each day instead of worrying about your future release. How do you keep up the intensity of your prayer life now that you're free?
Marziyeh: Prayer was the only thing that helped us, strengthened us. Sometimes we couldn't even pray in Farsi, our language. We didn't even know how. Many times we were praying in tongues. We witnessed power in prayers, especially in difficulties. Maryam and I always like to live with God. It seems very funny because sometimes we are in the car and we call God "Daddy" and we talk to him. All the time we are talking to him. It's not like formal prayer; it's just talking to him. Sometimes we are angry with him. Our relationship with him is so precious for both of us. We are both in love with Jesus.
How did your prison experience change your faith?
Maryam: We learned how to trust God in difficulties. We believed more than ever that God was alive. He's real and he has a plan for our lives.
Marziyeh: We could see the miracles of God every day and it made our faith stronger. We didn't have a Bible with us in prison, but every day we could touch God. We could touch Bible verses inside the prison because we were living them. We learned how to forgive our enemies. We were in very difficult situations. The guards and some of the prisoners treated us badly and insulted us, and it was very difficult. We remembered how Jesus forgives our sins.
We also learned about how he suffered. I was very sick and had many pains in my body. One day I was praying, and I had a dream where God told me that he let me touch a little of his suffering. When I woke I cried and thanked God for letting me taste a little of that. We learned how God is faithful to us and loves us and suffers for our sin. We touched many verses in his presence in different situations, which was very important for making our faith stronger.
The Bible was more alive for us. We learned how to live those verses rather than just reading them.
In her forward to your book, Anne Graham Lotz says that you told her it was easier for you to experience God's peace, presence, and power inside Evin Prison than on the outside in America. Can you explain that?
Maryam: The difference here is most people are from Christian backgrounds and think they already know everything about Jesus and the Bible. But because most people in Iran are from Muslim backgrounds, they experience the wrong rules of Islam, they live with them, and they are tired of them. When we talk about Jesus and grace and what Jesus did on the cross, they are so open. When we were talking to people and handing out the Bible, it was encouraging because we could see how interested they were.
In Iran people are Muslim because they are born Muslim. Here some Christians are just born Christians, but don't know anything about it.
Marziyeh: Sometimes persecution helps people because they are more thirsty for salvation. In Islam they teach us that God is one who rules over human life and punishes us for sin. Muslims cannot be close with God. If they do good things, he rewards them; if they do bad things, he punishes them. People believe they can't be close with God because they are sinners.
Whenever we talk to people about God's love they are very thirsty. It's more valuable for them. When they take it, they never want to lose it.
What does your future look like? What are you planning to do now?
Maryam: We believe God has a different plan for us here in the United States. We began writing our experiences down when we were in Turkey, not just to be a voice for prisoners or people in Iran, but also because we felt that there is a message for Christians in the United States.
Marziyeh: We both have this passion in our hearts to talk to people about Jesus. We are traveling and speaking. When we first arrived, we were in college studying English and evangelizing some of our classmates. We are now majoring in journalism to develop the skill of writing and speaking, and to improve our English. We would like to continue our education and to study international law.
Marziyeh: We also want to bring attention to other prisoners. We know Pastor Saeed Abedini and other Iranian Christians who need to be released.
Maryam: One is a pastor we know very well named Farshid Fathi. He's Iranian and doesn't have American citizenship. He has been in prison for three years and he has to stay there for three more years. He needs support and prayers. We always say that sending letters to prison can be a huge help to change the government's behavior. The information to write to Farshid and Saeed is on our website, www.CaptiveInIran.com. We will be updating the website with more names of other Christians in prisons in Iran who need support.