WASHINGTON — Two Iranian converts to Christianity recently spoke of their experiences facing persecution and imprisonment in their country for their religious beliefs.
“It’s not just about religion,” said Maryam Rostampour, one of the two women who spoke at a panel in Washington, about her home country’s treatment of religious minorities.
“It’s about government power,” she noted during her address at the Hudson Institute on April 9.
Rostampour and Christian convert Marziyeh Amirizadeh were both born into Muslim families, and they converted as young women to Christianity. Both went to Turkey in order to study theology, where they met one another.
They returned to Iran, where they began evangelizing around the country. They decided to distribute the Christian New Testament in Farsi — Iran’s official language — and, between the two of them, Rostampour and Amirizadeh handed out 20,000-plus Bibles throughout the country.
The women also formed two house churches, one for young people and another for prostitutes. They said that while the Christian community was small during this time period, in the early 2000s, the Iranian people were receptive to hearing the Christian faith.
Based on stories they have heard since, Rostampour said that, now, “we believe that there are many, many churches” in Iran.
In 2009, the women were arrested and charged with of apostasy, anti-government activity and blasphemy. While imprisoned in the local Evin Prison, they faced beatings, mental torture and threats.
“Mental torture in any prison is worse than physical torture,” Rostampour said.
She noted that there were others imprisoned for intellectual crimes and the arbitrary will of the government — including mothers with their children, who were often taken away after their third birthday.
Rostampour and Amirizadeh explained that they continued their evangelization while in prison, and Amirizadeh expressed that most prisoners were open to hearing about God “because they were hopeless.”
Amirizadeh noted that letters from individuals had a particularly strong impact upon their experience in prison: Guards would read and open them, prompting conversations on the Christian faith, and eventually contributing to their release, alongside letters from the Vatican, the United States and nonprofit organizations.
Through the experience, the women kept their faith, despite pressures to deny Christianity. Rostampour praised God for supporting them through their trials, crediting “God’s grace and God’s will” for their release.
Rostampour and Amirizadeh have since left Iran and moved to the United States.
The women also referenced the detention of Iranian-American pastor Saeed Abedini, also a convert to Christianity, on charges of threatening national security. The pastor helped run several house churches throughout the country, though, following pressure from the government, he stopped his work with the churches in 2009 and focused instead on supporting orphanages throughout Iran.
Abedini became a United States citizen in 2010, following his marriage to an American wife. He is also being held at Evin Prison.