When Iranian authorities sentenced two women to death in 2009 for spreading the message of Christianity, international observers feared the worse from the regime’s latest attempt to crush religious freedom in Iran.
But the regime’s punishment backfired when Maryam Rostampour and Marziyeh Amirizadeh evangelized hundreds of fellow prisoners, and even prison guards, in the 259 days before they were released following intense international pressure.
The women’s story is just one example of how the Islamic Republic’s severe attempts to suppress its own people, especially religious minorities, have failed.
Evangelizing behind bars
Rostampour and Amirizadeh initially prayed for a quick release after being sent to Tehran’s Evin prison, which is notorious for cruel and prolonged torture, using methods such as threats of execution or rape, sleep deprivation, electroshock, and severe beatings.
However, the friends soon realized “God had a purpose for being in that dark place,” according to Amirizadeh.
“At first we were praying for our release. But after a few days we realized that by meeting other women in the prison - some who were homeless or addicts - God had given us an opportunity to share the message of Christianity with people who needed to hear it the most,” said Rostampour in an interview with Al Arabiya English.
The women educated hundreds of fellow prisoners about Christianity and led Christian prayers.
“We were not allowed to have a Bible, but we lived out its teachings in the prison,” said Amirizadeh in an interview with Al Arabiya English.
Some of the prisoners initially expressed disdain for the women, calling them ‘dirty Christians,’ according to Amirizadeh, but later accepted the women and apologized for the comments.
Even some of the prison guards came to trust them.
“A female guard came to my cell and asked me to pray for her, but to keep it confidential. She said she believed that if I prayed for her, she would overcome fertility issues and become pregnant,” said Amirizadeh.
The duo gained a reputation in the women’s ward and men’s ward for their steadfast faith in the face of persecution by prison authorities.
“In prison in Iran, people don’t have any rights and it was worse for us because of our Christian faith,” said Rostampour, adding that she and Amirizadeh were physically threatened by guards and refused medical care by prison doctors.
“Whenever we got sick and went to the clinic, the doctors would first ask what our charge was before they asked how we were feeling. As soon as we said that our charges were because of our Christian faith, they would refuse to give us medication,” said Amirizadeh.
An Iranian inmate peers from behind a wall as a guard walks by at the female section of the infamous Evin jail, north of Tehran, on June 13, 2006. (File photo: AFP)
More free in prison
Despite the oppressive circumstances, Amirizadeh said she felt more free in prison than on the streets of Tehran.
“The guards couldn’t stop us from talking to prisoners about Christianity and that made them furious. We were already in prison, so what more could they do to us?” said Amirizadeh.
In the three years before their imprisonment, Rostampour and Amirizadeh had held church services in their apartment in Tehran and distributed over 20,000 Bibles to Iranians. Both acts are illegal under Iranian law.
Christians in Iran are sentenced to prison terms for holding private Christmas gatherings, organizing and conducting house churches, and constructing and renovating houses of worship, according to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom’s 2019 report.
In Iran, suppression for all
Rostampour said the victims of Tehran’s persecution are not just religious minorities, but all Iranians, who have been oppressed by the government since its start in 1979.
“After over forty years of oppression, the time for suppression is over. Today people in Iran understand their rights. They are tired of the Islamic regime and are standing up for freedom, going to the streets, and fighting for rights,” said Rostampour.
Rostampour and Amirizadeh, who now live in the US after being granted asylum, continue to speak out against Iran’s leadership. Amirizadeh said she supports the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign, which is “really working” to help the Iranian people and stop the malign behavior of the regime.
“My message to the Iranian regime is: you can’t suppress 80 million people. You can’t prosecute everyone against you in Iran. There aren’t enough prisons for that,” said Amirizadeh.
“We believe that one day Iran will be a free country,” added Rostampour.
Maryam Rostampour and Marziyeh Amirizadeh (Supplied)