Captive in Iran: A Remarkable True Story of Hope and Triumph Amid the Horror of Tehran's Brutal Evin Prisonby Maryam Rostampour, Marziyeh Amirizadeh
Embark on a chilling journey inside one of the world’s darkest and most dangerous places: Evin, the notorious Tehran prison. Here, prisoners are routinely tortured, abused, and violated. Executions are frequent and sudden. But for two women imprisoned for their Christian faithMaryam Rostampour and Marziyeh Amirizadehthis hell on earth was a place of unlikely grace as they reflected God’s love and compassion to their fellow prisoners and guards. Against all odds, Evin would become the only church many of them had ever known.
In Captive in Iran, Maryam and Marziyeh recount their 259 days in Evin. It’s an amazing story of unyielding faithwhen denying God would have meant freedom. Of incredible support from strangers around the world who fought for the women’s release. And of bringing God’s light into one of the world’s darkest placesgiving hope to those who had lost everything, and showing love to those in despair.
Maryam Rostampour and Marziyeh Amirizadeh knew they were putting their lives on the line. Though Islamic laws in Iran forbade them from sharing their Christian beliefs, in three years they’d covertly put New Testaments into the hands of twenty thousand of their countrymen. They’d started two secret house churches, including one for prostitutesmany of them women who had been abandoned by their husbands and had no other way to support themselves and their children. Maryam and Marziyeh had almost been caught many times . . . it seemed like divine intervention when they were not.
But finallyperhaps inevitablyin 2009, the two young women were arrested and held in the notorious Evin Prison in Tehran, a place where inmates are routinely tortured, and executions are swift and sudden. But in the face of chilling interrogations and intimidation, and risking a death sentence, something remarkable happened: Instead of succumbing to fear, they chose to take the radicaland dangerousstep of sharing their faith inside the very walls of the government stronghold that was meant to silence them.
In Captive in Iran, Maryam and Marziyeh recount how God used their 259 days in Evin Prison to bring about a miraculous reversal: shining light into one of the world’s darkest places, giving hope to those who had lost everything, and showing love to those in despair.
For all we knew, this could be our last day on earth.
“I hope you’ve been thinking carefully,” the interrogator said, nibbling on a piece of bread. “Have you?”
I wondered if he knew how hungry we were, or if he always ate in front of prisoners.
“What should we have been thinking of?” Maryam asked.
“About telling us what we want to know about you and your activities. I have checked your laptop and read all the evidence against you,” he said sternly. “You must tell us everything about people you have contact with, which organizations you work with. Otherwise, we will lock your hands and feet together and beat you until you die.
“Think about that as you prepare for your interrogation.” Pushing back abruptly from the table, he walked out.
Despite our earlier bravado, we were afraid. For all we knew, this could be our last day on earth. We held hands and prayed for strength.
If we are tortured, give us the power to stand fast.
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CAPTIVE IN IRANA REMARKABLE TRUE STORY OF HOPE AND TRIUMPH AMID THE HORROR OF TEHRAN'S BRUTAL EVIN PRISON
By MARYAM ROSTAMPOUR MARZIYEH AMIRIZADEH JOHN PERRY
TYNDALE HOUSE PUBLISHERS, INC.Copyright © 2013 Maryam Rostampour and Marziyeh Amirizadeh
All right reserved.
Chapter OneNOTHING TO WORRY ABOUT
I arrived home from the dentist to an empty house, and my jaw was throbbing. As I poured a glass of water to take some pain medication, the phone rang. It was my sister, Shirin.
"I'm so glad I caught you at home," she said, her voice anxious. "I had a terrible dream about you last night. I dreamed you had disappeared, and a voice told me you would be in a dark and dreadful place where you would be afraid. Suddenly the sky opened above your head and you were pulled upward by your hair into a beautiful green landscape. Then the voice said, 'This is what is happening to your sister.'"
"Forget about it," I said lightly. "You're getting yourself all worked up over nothing. Everything's fine. Marziyeh and I are going on vacation for two weeks during the New Year's holidays, and you and I can talk again while we're on the road."
The truth was that Marziyeh and I would be traveling, but not on vacation. That was just the story we told our friends and family for their own safety. We would actually be spending the time in other Iranian cities, handing out New Testaments.
To be honest, Shirin's dream bothered me more than I would admit, because I had also recently had a disturbing dream, one in which Marziyeh and I were standing on a hill with a group of boys and girls. A shining old man told a prophecy about each of us. When he looked at Marziyeh and me, he said, "You two will be taken."
With our upcoming trip, and now these two dreams occurring so close together, it was more than a little unsettling.
Whatever God has planned is what will happen.
* * *
I was dozing on the couch when the doorbell rang. I heard Marziyeh's voice in the hallway and some other voices I didn't recognize.
That's odd. Why doesn't she just come in? Maybe she forgot her key.
Peering through the peephole, I saw Marziyeh, another young woman in Islamic dress, and two young men.
"Open the door," the young woman said.
My mouth hurt and my mind was fuzzy from the medication, and I needed time to think.
"You'll have to wait until I change my clothes," I said through the door. For a man who was not a relative to enter the apartment, Islamic law required that I observe the strict dress code prescribed by the Koran.
"Don't worry," the woman answered. "Only I will come inside."
When I opened the door, the woman pushed her way in and immediately escorted me to my room to put on acceptable clothes. When we returned to the living room, Marziyeh was sitting on the couch with her hair properly covered, and the two young men were ransacking our apartment. As we watched in shock and horror, they methodically rummaged through every corner of every room, emptying drawers, cabinets, and closets, and pawing through our books and CDs. They even searched the food pantry in the kitchen.
Of course, they had no search warrant, no written orders of any kind. They were basiji, part of the Revolutionary Guard, and they didn't need permission to do anything. Like most basiji, these two were young and arrogant, bullies in their late teens or early twenties dressed in ragtag outfits that reflected their semiofficial status, somewhere between government militiamen and common thugs. They wore no uniforms, and because they wanted to blend into the crowd, they didn't even wear chafiehs, the black-and-white-checked scarves that some basiji wore symbolically as followers of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Their clothes were as dirty as they were.
Marziyeh and I had shared this simple apartment north of central Tehran for the past year. It was a quiet flat on a hill, with a fireplace in the living room, white walls, dark red curtains, and modern furniture covered with bold, dark orange fabric and big poofy pillows. The windows in the two bedrooms looked out onto the beautiful Darkeh Mountains, a popular destination for mountain climbers. From the balcony off the kitchen, we could see the street below and the severe, high walls of a nearby prison.
This apartment was our home, our refuge, and also the meeting place of a secret church of young people and others who risked imprisonment or death to worship Jesus Christ with us in violation of the law. In our bedrooms, we each had a stack of plastic chairs and a supply of Christian New Testaments and other literature. From our base of operations, we were quietly spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ in this sprawling city of more than seven million. Now these strangers had arrived without warning and were ordering us around.
"Sit on the couch," one of the basiji snapped, "and don't talk to each other."
He was lanky and nervous, more a boy than a man, with heavy eyebrows, a shock of thick black hair, and a sparse, fuzzy beard. Emboldened by his position and by Islamic lawwhich places women under the authority of men from age nine, the time girls are considered old enough for marriagehe left no question that we had better cooperate and keep our mouths shut.
The other basijiolder and taller, with fair skin and green eyeswho seemed to be in charge, took a more conciliatory approach. "Don't worry, ladies," he said. "Just stay seated and remain calm."
Though the two men were clearly in command, they had to have a female chaperone, according to Islamic law, in order to enter our home, because we were not relatives of theirs. The young woman wore a chador, the long, loose, lightweight robe that Muslim women must wear in public or in the presence of men who are not relatives. Underneath, we could see her green uniform. Maybe she was some kind of police officer.
Fortunately, while the basiji were searching, Marziyeh and I found an opportunity to hide our cell phones. Our address books, text messages, and photo archives could tie our friends to us and put them in danger. There were pictures on our computer of our missionary trips to India and South Korea. Unfortunately, I hadn't turned off the television before the intruders burst in; our TV was illegal because it had satellite service with programming that was uncensored and therefore a threat to the purity of the Islamic state.
* * *
As the minutes stretched into an hour and then more, the young policewoman kept a close watch on us as the two men began tossing our belongings into boxes on the living room floor. They had found hundreds of Christian-themed CDs and New Testaments in Farsi, the language of Iran. They noticed Christian messages posted on the refrigerator.
"Have you become a Christian?" the older basiji, whose name we learned was Mohammadi, asked Maryam.
"Yes," she answered, her voice strong and confident. "I have been a Christian for eleven years."
He turned to me. "Why did you become a Christian? What bad has our Imam Husein ever done to you?" he demanded, referring to one of our Islamic religious leaders.
"I became a Christian because I met Jesus," I explained. "I didn't turn away from anything. I turned toward Jesus because He came into my heart and called me to Himself."
"So you met Jesus?" Mohammadi asked sarcastically. "What did he look like? Was he black or blond? Did he have a beard?"
I didn't answer. As I watched the systematic destruction of our apartment, I remembered the dreams I'd had that I would one day be in prison, doing battle for my faith. I had told only Maryam and a few other friends about this premonition that I would somehow end up behind bars. "Aren't you afraid of the thought of prison?" they had asked me. "Aren't you afraid of being tortured or raped?" My answer was always the same. "God is my Father, and He would never let these horrible things happen to me. If He did, it would be to fulfill His will in a way I could not understand. It is a mystery, but I will always trust the Lord."
By now it was after 6:00 p.m. and the basiji had been ransacking our apartment for more than two hours. Asking permission to leave the couch, Maryam and I brought them New Testaments and CDs they had overlooked, and even helped to count them: 190 New Testaments and 500 CDs.
Refusing to be intimidated, Maryam said, "You must return all of these to us!"
"I'm sure you'll get them back," Mohammadi promised unconvincingly.
Maryam picked up a NewTestament and handed it to him. "You should take one of these and read it."
"I have," he insisted. "But I've read the real and true version, not one of these distorted ones."
By that he probably meant that he'd read the so-called Gospel of Barnabas, a false version of Scripture, published in Farsi in the 1700s, that portrays Jesus not as the Son of God and Savior of the world, but as a lesser prophet in line with the Koran's description of Him. Many Muslims think this is a Christian Gospel because they've never had a chance to read the real thing.
He held up another book, The Confessions of St. Augustine. "What are you doing with this book?" he demanded.
"You can get it in bookstores all over the country," I replied. "We thought it would be interesting."
As Mohammadi continued poking through our books, I wasn't sure he could even read. If he could, his knowledge of books was sketchy at besttypical of the close-minded, poorly educated people the government had on its payroll by the thousands. He couldn't tell Christian books from the rest. He didn't recognize CDs we had by one of the top music groups in the country.
"The Lord seems to be everywhere in this house," Mohammadi said after a minute.
"You won't find anything but the Lord here," I replied, "because we live with the Lord."
We were on dangerous ground. These people had searched our apartment without a warrant. Now they were likely to arrest us without bringing any charges. Technically, it's not illegal to be a Christian in Iran. However, in practical terms, policemen, Revolutionary Guards, judges, and every other authority in the country interpret the law for themselves and aren't accountable to anyone. These two boys and the young woman with them could charge us with anything, or hold us and not charge us at all. And though being a Christian was not a crime, converting from Islam to another faith and evangelizing on behalf of that faith were considered crimes of apostasy and punishable by death.
While it was true that Maryam and I had been raised in Muslim households and had Islamic names, we had not embraced Islam as children or young adults. In our minds, we had never "converted" from Islam because we'd never really believed in Islam to begin with. We had met each other at an evangelical conference in Turkey, had decided to work together, and had spent the last three years in Tehran quietly sharing the gospel with anyone who was interested. For two of those years, having divided the city into squares on a huge wall map, we had gone out at night between 8:00 p.m. and midnight, visiting one sector at a time. We handed out New Testaments in cafés, gave them to taxi drivers, and left them in cabs, coffee shops, and mailboxes. When we finished a section, we marked it with a cross on our map. In three years altogether, we had given away about twenty thousand New Testaments.
We also traveled outside Tehran, taking Bibles to other cities. We even left some New Testaments inside the temple at Qom, the most sacred holy place in Islam, a place Christians are not even allowed to enter. But what better place to introduce people to the truth of Jesus Christ! Over the years, we had learned to be cautious and to depend on God to protect us wherever we went.
Nonetheless, we had aroused official suspicions. We weren't going to deny our faith or hide it, under any circumstances, but now that the government had its eye on us, our challenge would be staying true to Christ while continuing our ministry without getting caught.
These thoughts and memories raced through my mind as Maryam and I helped the basiji pack up everything they wantedNew Testaments, CDs, our private journals, personal belongings, identity documents, and more. They ordered us to come with them, though we weren't allowed to take any extra clothes or supplies. We had no idea where they were taking us or when we would be home again.
"Should we take winter clothes or summer clothes?" Maryam asked, trying to lighten the mood. There was no answer.
The young woman escorted us out to a small, dingy white car and sat between us in the backseat. The men followed, carrying boxes of our belongings. It was dusk and the wind was getting cold. The street outside our apartment was quiet, but as we drove through the neighborhood, the streets became crowded with holiday shoppers preparing for the Iranian New Year's celebration, which was a little more than two weeks away. Cars jostled for room along the narrow roadways, and the sidewalks were packed to overflowing.
We drove past the prison walls we could see from our kitchen. It was Evin Prison, a notorious compound built during the reign of the Shah to hold those who opposed his regime. Since the Shah's fall from power in 1979, Evin has been used for political prisoners, solitary confinement, and torture of those considered enemies of the Islamic state. We passed its towering red brick walls almost every day. Often we had wondered who was imprisoned there and what their lives were like. Maybe we were about to find out.
Finally we pulled up to the police station in the Gisha neighborhood, a three-story brick building where people came and went all day for motor vehicle documents. As usual, the main entrance was busy. But instead of taking us in through the front door, the basiji ordered us out of the car and escorted us to a quiet back alley out of public view, with extra guards at the door. This was the entrance to Base Two, the facility for the security police who deal with crimes against the state.
* * *
Our incredible, frightening journey had started early that morning, March 5, 2009. As Maryam and I were getting ready to go our separate ways to run some errands, I received a mysterious phone call. A polite voice on the line informed me of a problem with my car registration and asked me to go to the Gisha police station before two o'clock to sort it out. I quickly called the former owner of the car to see if he knew of any problem, but he didn't answer his phone. Then I called an attorney friend to ask if I should be concerned.
"No," my friend assured me. "These problems come up all the time. It's nothing to worry about."
Even so, I couldn't help thinking about what had happened a few days earlier when I went to have my passport renewed. One of the forms had asked me to indicate my religion, and I had checked the box for "Christian." When my turn came at the counter, the clerk was indignant.
"How is this possible?" he demanded. "You have an Islamic name. Your parents are Muslims. How can you be a Christian?"
"With the Lord, anything is possible," I said. The clerk shot me a stern look but said nothing more.
I remembered that exchange as I went on my errands and visited my sister, Elena, before arriving at the police station at about 11:30. A guard at the door stopped me.
"What is your business here?" he asked.
"I received a call saying there might be a problem with my car registration," I explained.
"You should not enter here dressed that way."
I was modestly dressed, with my hair completely covered, as required in public, but I was not wearing the Islamic chador because I am not a Muslim.
"But I have covered myself," I said.
"I've said what I have to say," the guard replied. "The rest is up to you.
But if you come in dressed that way, you will be ignored and no one will help you."
In the interest of getting to the bottom of the documentation mystery, I went back to the apartment and changed, then returned to the police station. By then, the office was closed for lunch and for one of the daily calls to prayer required by Islamic law.
I explained to the guard that I had been told to be at the office no later than 2:00 p.m. The guard insisted the office was closed and that no one could help me now. After several minutes of arguing, I finally convinced him to let me inside, where I explained to the clerk at the counter about the phone call.
"That's impossible," the clerk declared. "I don't think we called you. You must be mistaken." He handed me an address. "Try this office instead."
At that moment, an overweight, middle-aged man in a police uniform walked by. "I am Mr. Haghighat," he said pleasantly. (Haghighat is the Farsi word for "truth." Police officials, judges, and other people in the Iranian government don't use their real names. This man's alias would soon prove ironic.) "I think I can help you," he said. "Follow me."
Excerpted from CAPTIVE IN IRAN by MARYAM ROSTAMPOUR MARZIYEH AMIRIZADEH JOHN PERRY Copyright © 2013 by Maryam Rostampour and Marziyeh Amirizadeh. Excerpted by permission of TYNDALE HOUSE PUBLISHERS, INC.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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