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Amirizadeh (left) and Rostampour
Tyndale Momentum
Amirizadeh (left) and Rostampour

Finding freedom

Iran | Imprisoned in Iran for almost a year, Christians Marziyeh Amirizadeh and Maryam Rostampour now can share their ordeal: ‘In Evin Prison, everything is a shock’

Issue: "Unstoppable?," April 20, 2013

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. 

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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. 

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