They had to overcome the fear of life imprisonment and the possibility of execution because they loved and followed Jesus Christ. They had to remain strong through weeks in solitary confinement, and endless hours of interrogation by Iranian officials and religious leaders. They had to endure months of harsh living conditions and debilitating sickness. In their first interview since their 259 day ordeal in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison in 2009, Maryam Rostampour (29) and Marzieh Amirizadeh (32) tell Sam Yeghnazar what life was like in prison and how they survived.
In their first interview since their release, they tell Sam Yeghnazar, Elam’s Founder and Director, what life was like in prison. They share how they had strengthen themselves in the Lord to overcome the fear of execution or life-imprisonment and maintain peace and hope through very dark days.
The shadow of execution
SY: What was the worst thing that happened to you?
Marzieh: One of the worst was the execution of two of my fellow prisoners. I had never experienced such a thing. One of those killed was my roommate. We had spent a lot of time together. And one day they took her to be executed. For a week I was in shock that killing a human being was so easy. She lived among us, a fellow human being; I saw her every day, and we said, ‘Hello’. The next day she is not there. After these executions the spirit of sorrow and death hung over the prison. There was deadly silence everywhere. We all felt this. There was nothing we could do. Everyone was under pressure. The sadness was overwhelming. We stared at each other but had no power to speak. This was the worst experience. It was horrifying and tangible. (Marzieh is heard weeping)
Maryam: The worst thing for me was the execution of Shireen who became a close friend in prison.
SY: Did you ever fear execution?
Maryam: I never thought about execution, I thought we might be sentenced to life imprisonment because that is the punishment for women convicted of apostasy. I just thought this was something we would have to bear.
Marzieh: Before prison we talked about execution, but when we got to prison and experienced the fear of it - our way of talking changed. The very first night that we were arrested, when they threatened us, we were really frightened. We never imagined we would be so frightened; we had talked about these things before. But the atmosphere there and what happened to us frightened us beyond our expectations. We were confined to a dark and dirty room and paralysed with fear. We could see the fear in each other’s faces. We prayed and what calmed us was the presence of God and the peace that He gave us.
I just want to add, it is easy to say that I give my life for the Lord and I will do anything for Him, even die. I always thought it would be a privilege to give my life for the Lord. You say these things. I know for sure that if this would happen to us we would rejoice ultimately. But human fears gripped us. The power the Lord gave us helped us to overcome these fears, just as when we prayed in the police station, God banished our fear and renewed our strength.
From ‘Unclean apostate!’ to ‘Please pray for me’
SY: How did the guards treat you?
Maryam: When we were arrested most of the guards treated us badly, especially when they knew we had been involved in evangelism. They would curse us and would not let us drink water from the public tap or use the wash basin. But this changed and eventually they asked us to pray for them.
SY: How did the other prisoners treat you?
Marzieh: Some called us ‘Dirty, unclean, apostates,’ but their opinion changed and they asked for forgiveness. We had become an example to them and they would take our side.
Maryam: At Evin Prison the well-educated political and business prisoners called us ‘Mortad Kasif’ (Unclean apostates). In less than a month everything changed. As they got to know us, they were curious about our faith, they respected us and called upon us to sort out arguments they had between themselves.
SY: Did any other prisoners come to faith?
Yes. There were those who accepted Christ. When we were in Vozara (the first prison the women were taken to) we prayed the sinner’s prayer with many of the prostitutes. They prayed themselves and we prayed for them. But there were others who were too frightened to confess their faith. There were many who were impacted.
Letters ‘gave us hope’
SY: What message do you have for the thousands who prayed for you when you were in prison?
Marzieh: I would like to thank them for their prayers and support, and the letters they sent us. During this time it wasn’t just Maryam and Marzieh who were imprisoned, but all these prayer warriors. This was a great encouragement for us. We felt their presence alongside us. So please keep praying for those who are in prison for their faith, believers in Afghanistan and Pakistan and other places. Don’t think that your prayers are unimportant.
SY: What happened to the thousands of letters you were sent?
Marzieh: We heard that people sent us letters in prison, but we didn’t get any of them: Just hearing that people sent us letters, was a great encouragement to us. And what’s interesting is that the guards who opened our letters, read the Bible verses and the prayers, and were impacted. We know this because they told us and mentioned some of the verses from the Gospel. I can’t thank them (those who sent letters) with all that is in my heart; I can say ‘thank you,’ but this is not enough.
Maryam: I thank them. It’s true we didn’t see the letters they sent, but we knew there was a large group supporting us. This was a huge encouragement to us and helped us to stand firm. We heard from our guards that forty to fifty letters were coming every day. They saw how Christians stood together to support their own. This was something that gave us hope.