Features

Finding freedom

"Finding freedom" Continued...

Issue: "Unstoppable?," April 20, 2013

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.)

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