By Andrew E. Harrod
Marziyeh Amirizadeh and Maryam Rostampour have recently released a stirring account of their illegal evangelism in their native Iran and subsequent nine-month ordeal in Evin Prison in the book Captive in Iran. As Anne Graham Lotz writes in the book’s forward, Teheran’s Evin Prison “has a worse reputation than Alcatraz or Angola in the United States.” Yet as these two women authors related to Lotz, “it had been easier for them to experience God’s peace and presence and power inside Evin Prison than on the outside in America.” As religious freedom scholar Nina Shea noted at an April 9, 2013, Hudson Institute book launch event, Captive in Iran has an “uplifting, happy message” in contrast to so many other “depressing” religious repression stories discussed at the Hudson Institute. This message offers multiple insights to Christians and others alike. Readers worldwide will receive a firsthand glimpse of Iran’s brutal repression, a convert’s analysis of the differences between basic Christian doctrine and Iran’s Shiite Islam state religion, and an inspiring account of how individuals can hold fast to their conscience in the face of terrifying state coercion.
Perhaps Evin Prison was, relatively speaking, not so shocking for the pair, for as Amirizadeh stated at the Hudson Institute, “Iran is like a big prison.” Islamic indoctrination permeated all areas of life, beginning in schools where an older child’s reading from the Koran in Arabic every morning would precede class chants of “Death to America! Death to Israel!” In such an environment, these two women risked imprisonment and death for sharing their adopted Christian faith among Iranians.
Rules stemming from an Islam proclaimed by the regime in the book as the “only complete religion” regulated all aspects of life. Amirizadeh at the Hudson Institute, for example, noted the stress Iranian women had maintaining required body coverings in public. The book, meanwhile, recalls a prison official fingerprinting the pair while wearing black cotton gloves in order not to touch the skin of an unrelated woman. Islamic etiquette likewise demands that people wash their hands before they even touch a Koran. Iranians who had made the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajjis) similarly would “consider Christians dirty, especially those who have converted. Usually they won’t touch a Christian or take anything from a Christian’s hand.”
Rostampour at the Hudson Institute responded to Shea’s casual reference to Iran’s “justice system” with the comment that “there is no justice system in Iran,” but rather an “injustice system.” Rostampour saw in this “injustice system” a reflection of the “so many wrong rules” in Islam, particularly with respect to women. The book, for example, discusses (Shiite) Islamic sigheh, or “temporary marriage”, whereby a man may “marry” a woman for periods of as short as a few minutes, a practice effectively legitimizing prostitution.
The status of Iranian women under the Islamic Republic naturally concerned this Christian pair. The poor status of divorced and widowed women “reminded” Rostampour of an evangelization trip before imprisonment “to prostitutes in India, where the Hindu religion also enslaves women.” “Anyone who says Islam is a religion of peace and equality,” Rostampour added in discussing the life stories of fellow female inmates, “should spend a week with the prisoners of Evin.”
Rostampour wrote that Iranian authorities would “systematically spread lies” about Christianity to impede its influence. As she explained at the Hudson Institute, the growth of a faith like Christianity could only weaken an Iranian regime claiming legitimacy from Islam. “This regime’s Islam,” Amirizadeh similarly wrote, “is the true Islam, written in the Koran….Islam does its best to keep people away from God and a personal relationship with Him because that direct connection threatens the power and control of the religious leaders.”
Despite such efforts, Amirizadeh and Rostampour found their way to becoming Christians. In addition to rejecting the “many lies in Islam,” Amirizadeh at the Hudson Institute complained that Islam offers “no close relationship with God.” Rostampour likewise wrote of being “tired of the meaningless rules and meaningless laws, and tired of a faraway God whose voice I never heard.” Amirizadeh rejected the “terrifying image of God” that “many Muslims have” of “one who harshly rules over the human race and punishes us for the slightest sins.” Rostampour agreed that Christianity’s “idea of God as a benevolent Father who forgives all our sins is entirely foreign to many Muslims.”
Koran readings and daily Islamic prayers did not make Amirizadeh “feel any closer to God. On the contrary, they created a greater distance from Him as they became a routine action that I was forced to do” and “were a waste of time.” Amirizadeh saw similar patterns in a fellow prisoner Tahmasebi who “practiced the daily Islamic prayer ritual of namaz, kneeling on her white mat and wearing a long, white chador. Yet for all her display of piety, it seemed routine, without any feeling of love of God.” Against Amirizadeh’s protests of God’s universal love, Tahmasebi claimed that “God doesn’t like me at all.” Amirizadeh additionally questioned why Islam demanded prayer in Arabic and not a believer’s native language such as Farsi.
Accordingly, Christianity is popular and growing in Iran despite regime repression. Amirizadeh herself wrote of her first visit to church as “an incredible experience. People were worshipping with joy and praying freely to God.” The book recounts that Iranian youth “could scarcely imagine a Lord in human form who sacrificed himself for them, a Savior who loved them unconditionally. That knowledge made them almost delirious with joy and thanksgiving.” In Evin Prison, meanwhile, many inmates “had lost all hope of salvation because of Islam’s depiction of…a god who demanded impossible standards, and had no mercy on those who failed to achieve them.” For them, Christianity was a “life-changing revelation.”
Captive in Iran discusses in detail the daily horrific living conditions in Evin Prison of awful food, overcrowding, and terrible sanitation, to say nothing of the ever-present threats of torture and death. Rostampour at the Hudson Institute, though, actually thought that Evin’s “mental torture is worse than physical torture.” Yet imprisonment actually facilitated the pair’s evangelization. “What looked like a failure by worldly standards,” Rostampour wrote, “was a great victory for Christ.” As Amirizadeh explained, undercover evangelization outside of Evin Prison had been a
slow process. Now that we were in prison, we could talk openly about our faith. Whereas before we had searched for people to speak to, now they came looking for us: ‘Go see the Christian girls!’ The very prison system that tried to silence us was now our megaphone: Our arrest, our story, and our message of faith were news around the world."
As Rostampour noted, new prison arrivals recognized the two evangelists due to international attention procured through media such as Voice of America (VOA). As Amirizadeh learned after the pair’s release, there were “many cases where news of our arrest and our defiance had led others to Christ. When people learned that we were willing to die rather than deny our faith, they wanted to know what it was that was worth that kind of sacrifice.”
Throughout Captive in Iran, Amirizadeh and Rostampour stress that, unlike other prisoners, they would never feign obedience to the regime in order to win clemency. “We would never turn from Christ,” they stated to their defense lawyer, “never water down our story, never deny our Savior.” “When you are in love with God,” Amirizadeh elaborated, “when you live with Him and He becomes your world, the problems of this world become unimportant.” “You have every right to feel tired and hopeless,” Amirizadeh said in explaining their steadfastness to a disbelieving Tahmasebi who had spent 13 years in prison.
But my life and Maryam’s life are dedicated to God. For us, freedom makes sense only in the context of our relationship with Him. If I can’t live and act according to the principles of my faith, then I’m not free, whether I’m in prison or outside. Real freedom means being allowed to follow the faith you choose, not having to lock it up or hide it in a cage. In here, I’m free because the regime can’t force me to abandon my faith for theirs."
In the end, both Amirizadeh and Rostampour obtained corporal as well as spiritual freedom. Following their release, the pair departed Teheran for Turkey on a May 22, 2010, flight. There they spoke with Turkish police and Turks working for the United Nations, both of whom “clearly resented the fact that we had ‘converted’ from Islam,” in order to begin asylum proceedings that would bring them to the United States. They close Captive in Iran with the certitude that Iran’s “unjust and cruel regime cannot last forever. The day will come when God will cause this country to rise from the ashes and give them ‘the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit (Isaiah 61:3).’”