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Authors: Maryam Rostampour

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Captive in Iran

BOOK: Captive in Iran
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Captive in Iran: A Remarkable True Story of Hope and Triumph amid the Horror of Tehran’s Brutal Evin Prison

Copyright © 2013 by Maryam Rostampour and Marziyeh Amirizadeh. All rights reserved.

Cover photograph of chain copyright © Radius Images/Corbis. All rights reserved.

Cover photograph of woman copyright © Jose AS Reyes/Shutterstock. All rights reserved.

Interior photographs are the property of their respective copyright holders and all rights are reserved. Woman on phone © AP Photo/Vahid Salemi; women in prison © ATTA KENARE/Getty Images; prison guard © Abedin Taherkenareh/epa/Corbis; behind prison bars © Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images; Judge Salvati © AFP/Getty Images; Ayatollah Larijani © AP Photo/Vahid Salemi; Tehran skyline © Elmira Torabi/iStockphoto. All other photographs are from the personal collection of the authors and are used with permission.

Designed by Jennifer Ghionzoli

Edited by Dave Lindstedt

Published in association with the literacy agency of Calvin Edwards & Company, 1200 Ashwood Parkway, Suite 140, Atlanta, GA 30338.

Scripture quotations are taken from
The Holy Bible
, English Standard Version
®
(ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Because of the sensitive nature of the stories told about women imprisoned in the Vozara Detention Center and Evin Prison in Iran, many names have been changed to safeguard the privacy and dignity of the individuals involved.

ISBN 978-1-4143-7120-7 (hardcover)

ISBN 978-1-4143-8304-0 (International Trade Paper Edition)

ISBN 978-1-4143-8220-3 (ePub); ISBN 978-1-4143-8221-0 (Kindle); ISBN 978-1-4143-8219-7 (Apple)

Build: 2013-08-13 15:58:31

To the memory of our dear friend Shirin Alam Hooli, whose courage, kindness, and love live on in the hearts of all who knew her; to the precious women who were with us in Evin during our imprisonment (some of whom have since been released); and to all the women in Evin today still waiting for the justice that only a free nation can give them.

CONTENTS

     
Chapter 1: Nothing to Worry About

     
Chapter 2: The Guilty Girls

     
Chapter 3: The Road to Vozara

     
Chapter 4: A Sign of Honor

     
Chapter 5: New Friends, Old Questions

     
Chapter 6: Celebration of Faith

     
Chapter 7: Evin, Our Church

     
Chapter 8: Children of God

     
Chapter 9: Feeding the Hungry

     
Chapter 10: A Nasty Reputation

     
Chapter 11: Willing Spirit, Weary Flesh

     
Chapter 12: Fairness and Integrity

     
Chapter 13: Blindfolded and Blessed in Ward 209

     
Chapter 14: “Execute Us!”

     
Chapter 15: A Lesson in Faith

     
Chapter 16: A Different Freedom

     
Chapter 17: A Watching World

     
Chapter 18: Waiting for News

     
Chapter 19: Beyond Comprehension

     
Chapter 20: God at Work

     
Chapter 21: A Change of Season

     
Chapter 22: Mysterious Visitors

     
Chapter 23: Guilty As Charged

     
Chapter 24: Waiting on the Lord

     
Chapter 25: Not What We Expected

     
Chapter 26: The Day Will Come

FOREWORD

RECENTLY I RETURNED
from a ministry trip to India, but within thirty-six hours I was on the road again. This time my destination was a women’s retreat about ninety minutes from Atlanta, Georgia. I spoke in the evening, and the next morning the director of the retreat came to my cabin with two Iranian women she felt I would be interested in meeting. I was given the American version of their names: Marcie and Miriam.

We chatted for a moment, and then, knowing they were both from a Muslim nation, I asked them each to share how they had come to place their faith in Jesus Christ. I wasn’t prepared for the thrilling blessing they began to pour out upon me as they shared their personal journeys of faith. They hadn’t been just saved from sin. They hadn’t just converted to the Christian religion. They were both in love with Jesus! For the next hour or so, they shared with me why—it was a love forged in the fires of pain and persecution.

Toward the end of our time together, with tears streaming down their lovely faces, they made a comment that haunts me still: They said it had been easier for them to experience God’s peace and presence and power inside Evin Prison than on the outside in America. Evin Prison! The prison in Tehran that has a worse reputation than Alcatraz or Angola in the United States. A place that causes even the strongest to shudder. How could that be?

Because I had a plane to catch, there was no time to find out why they would make such a comment. Or to hear some of their experiences inside Evin Prison. Or how they had known God there. Or how their faith had not only survived the experience, but thrived in it! So several weeks later,
when I received a letter from them asking for permission to send me the manuscript of their new book for the purpose of writing the foreword, I quickly agreed. I couldn’t wait to plunge into the details of their experience. And I was not disappointed.

As I read, I was held spellbound page after page, story after story. But what impacted me most was not the words they used to describe life behind prison walls, but what I read between the lines. I was, and still am, blown away by their boldness, their strength, their steadfastness, and their unwavering declaration of Jesus as the Son of God, the Savior of the world, the risen Lord and King. They lovingly and fearlessly presented Him to broken women who responded with tearful desperation, to manipulative women who tried to use them for their own purposes, to hostile officials and guards who had the power to torture, to judges who could have released them earlier if they had just been willing to compromise their faith.

Inside the dark hell of Evin Prison, Marcie and Miriam turned on the Light! Their love for the least, their kindness to the meanest, their gentleness to the roughest, their willingness to serve in the dirtiest place imaginable is truly a stunningly clear reflection of the Jesus they love, as well as evidence of His presence inside those walls. He didn’t just carry them through
somehow
—He carried them through triumphantly!

And I wondered . . . has God brought them here, to America, to share their remarkable stories in order to prepare His people for what’s coming? So we will know that our God is faithful and true, wherever we find ourselves? Because we all have our prison experiences, don’t we? Prisons of physical pain, of financial ruin, of emotional brokenness, of spousal abuse, of marital betrayal . . .

Captive in Iran
has strengthened my faith. Read it, and I believe you will be strengthened in yours, also.

Anne Graham Lotz

CHAPTER 1

NOTHING TO WORRY ABOUT

MARYAM

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 out
fits 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
chafieh
s, 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 law—which places women under the authority of men from age nine, the time girls are considered old enough for marriage—he left no question that we had better cooperate and keep our mouths shut.

The other
basiji
—older and taller, with fair skin and green eyes—who 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.

Marziyeh

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 New Testament 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 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 best—typical 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 wanted—New 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.

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