I vaguely remember having heard about Maryam Rostampour and Marziyeh Amirizadeh when they were in the news so much a few years ago. When I first saw a headline (on the internet) about two single women arrested for distributing Bibles in Iran, I first assumed they were missionaries from another country, perhaps from the U.S.
Then I learned that they were Iranian themselves, and that the charges against them were also about apostasy. It is not illegal in Iran to be a Christian, but it is a capital offense to convert from Islam to Christianity. I suppose I may have wondered how they came to faith in Christ. But I really don’t think I paid a lot of attention to their story at that time.
When I recently reviewed Tyndale Summer Reading Program book list for this year, I decided that Captive in Iran: A Remarkable True Story of Hope and Triumph amid the Horror of Tehran’s Brutal Evin Prison would be one of the first books I would read. I spend much of last week reading it, and I am still trying to sort out my reactions to it.
I found it somewhat difficult to read about so much suffering. There are not the stories of severe torture that I had feared, though they do tell a little about torture endured by another woman in the prison. But they tell one story after another of women whom they befriended in the prison, women who were victims of cruelty and injustice even before they were thrown in prison. Even women guilty of actual crimes were depicted as having been driven to them by the conditions in which they lived.
It is easy to take for granted the freedoms we have in this country. There are serious problems with our criminal justice system, but in general we do at least attempt to consider people “innocent until proven guilty.” People with more money may get preferential treatment because they can get better lawyers, but we try to make the system fair.
In Iran, based on these women’s account, justice is given lip service but the reality is often very different. Women in particular are vulnerable because they have few legal rights. They are forced into marriages and they cannot get a divorce unless the husband agrees, no matter how abusive he may be.
No doubt there are men in Evin Prison who suffer just as unjustly. But of course Maryam and Marziyeh were kept in the women’s part of the prison, strictly separated from the men. So it is the women’s stories that they tell, and the injustice against women that they rail against and want the world to know about.
Then there was the reality of prison life. Malnutrition, lack of access to adequate healthcare (the prison doctors were indifferent and distributed the same pills regardless of the prisoner’s condition), overcrowding (as in barely room for everyone to lie down on the floor), and general indifference on the part of those in charge to the prisoners’ condition. (After all, they’re just criminals, right?)
Maryam and Marziyeh talk some about their own physical problems – they were in pain or ill the entire time they were imprisoned. But they do not focus on it, other than to get word out about what life there is like, despite the sanitized version of prison life on display for the rest of the world to see. The book includes photographs made for PR purposes, and explanations of how greatly reality differs from that display.
The focus, rather, is on how God made a way for Maryam and Marziyeh to share the love of God with people who were so hungry for it. Books I have read about and by Muslims talk of a compassionate God, but Maryam and Marziyeh find women who cannot imagine God loving them because they know only a severe, unforgiving God. When these women are told that God loves them, they respond eagerly.
Evangelical Christians may be dismayed that the message about God’s love often does not seem to clearly convey the Gospel message as we understand it. Since these stories were written down later, after Maryam and Marziyeh were freed, they were of course not relating conversations word-for-word as they happened, but as they were remembered. No doubt the details of what was shared may have varied from what is written. But one would expect that those elements Maryam and Marziyeh consider most important would be included.
They proclaim the Gospel boldly in their witness to their interrogators, explaining why they cannot deny their faith to gain their freedom. But in their conversations with other prisoners, sometimes they simply assure the other women that God loves them, that God is on their side. And I find myself wondering, what does that mean? God is against the injustice and oppression that put the women in prison, but unless the women put their faith in God through Christ, are they on God’s side? And if not, in what sense is He on their side?
Maryam and Marziyeh each tell of their conversion. Both grew up in Muslim homes, but neither really considered herself a Muslim. They always had questions about God and wanted to know God more but found Islam lacking in what they were looking for.
Maryam was given a book with part of the Gospel of Luke, telling how Christ died for her sins. She was overjoyed to find the unconditional love she had longed for, and gladly gave her heart to Jesus Christ.
Marziyeh had a dream in which she was overwhelmed by a sense of being loved. She began talking to God “in the manner of a relationship between a child and her father,” studying different religions, and asking God to show her the right path. One day she attended a church, and heard a voice telling her she was healed of a physical ailment she had been experiencing.
She still wanted to find more reasons to convert to Christianity, however. One day while praying with some friends, some of whom spoke in tongues, she began to speak in tongues, and she could see Jesus in front of her for a few seconds. Convinced that she had met God through Jesus Christ, she dedicated her life to Jesus.
They write little of their contacts with Christians or churches, as to do so might bring persecution on those people. So it’s hard to know how much their perspective reflects that of Christians in Iran in general. The connections they do mention are to churches in the Pentecostal tradition.
Maryam acknowledges that “not every Christian has this experience” of speaking in tongues, that it is one of many gifts from God and it is one she received. But overall I get the impression from both of them that their faith has a much greater emphasis on experience and feelings than that of most Christians I know.
During most if her time in prison, she felt the presence of the Holy Spirit. One time, though, for several days, she “couldn’t feel the Lord’s presence.” She had never known such an emptiness before as a Christian. Finally she prayed for God “to make Himself known in a special way.” She sang hymns nonstop for hours, then she felt “the Spirit of God flowing over me, embracing me.”
Marziyeh also dreams which she believes were messages from God. It is hard to see how she arrived at the interpretations she did based on her description of the dreams, but in several instances she was able to tell other inmates that they would be released from prison and when it would happen. In each case it happened as she had predicted.
I find it somewhat hard to relate to faith that seems so tied to particular kinds of experience. For me, not sensing God’s presence is more or less the norm. It is having any particular sense of His presence that is extraordinary. I believe He is there all the time, but I do not experience it.
I am reminded of something I read recently by Frederica Mathewes-Green. In a blog post about Orthodox spirituality, she writes about the nous, a Greek word used in the New Testament that is often translated mind or intellect. In Western culture, we think of the mind as having to do with reasoning, but she says that the Eastern view (referring to the Eastern Orthodox church, not the Fast East), much closer in this regard to that of the New Testament, is different.
The nous is “the receptive mind, which can ‘hear’ God’s voice, or ‘sense’ his presence, or ‘see’ his face.” Once we have received input through the nous – whether communication from God or ordinary sensory input of the sights and sounds and smells around us, we use our reason to make use of that input.
Perhaps people in Iran, and other places less shaped by Western thought, are generally more open to certain kinds of communication from God because of this concept of the nous, even if they don’t use that term for it. I know I have heard before that in Muslim countries people, God speaks to people through dreams or visions, bringing them the truth of Jesus directly when they have not had contact with Christians. They are open to the idea of God speaking to them in that way, while in our culture we generally are not.
On the whole, I find it hard to say that my faith was strengthened by reading this book, as Anne Graham Lotz says in the Foreword that hers was. Maryan and Marziyeh’s experiences, both of faith and persecution, seem so far removed from my own. I am reminded, of course, how God can work in and through the most terrible circumstances. But there are other accounts of such things that I have found more faith-strengthening.
I can say, however, that I am impressed by how much these two Christian women kept their focus on ministering to others during their time in prison. Despite the awful conditions, they were busy sharing their testimony and their love, serving in practical ways, and sharing what little they had with others who had less. In my life filled with far less serious problems, I am reminded to try to do likewise.