LES SILLARS, HOST: From WORLD Radio, this is Doubletake.
MARZIYEH AMIRIZADEH: My name is Marziyeh Amirizadeh and I’m originally from Iran.
Marziyeh, or Marzi as her friends call her, is a tall, slim woman. Long brown hair and clear olive skin. She has a confident yet soft and feminine presence. She grew up in a small city in southeastern Iran.
MARZI: I was born just a few months before the Iranian revolution in 1979.
In the summer of 1979 radical Islamic socialists toppled the Shah of Iran and imposed strict Sharia law. The world got another reminder of just how brutal life under Sharia law can be on September 13, 2022.
BBC News: Police firing in the streets, women cutting their hair, burning hijabs in rage, student demonstrations.
That day Iran’s morality police in Tehran arrested Mahsa Amini. She was a shy, 22 year old Kurdish girl with long dark hair. She wanted to be a lawyer. Here’s her cousin on ITV News.
ITV News: Mahsa always had a smile. I grew up with her. She was joyful. She was part of me.
The morality police prowl the streets to enforce Sharia law’s strict dress code. Women must cover pretty much their entire bodies, down to their wrists and ankles. The police said Mahsa was wearing a hijab “improperly.” And wearing tight pants. So they threw Mahsa into a police van and beat her over the head. Repeatedly.
After she arrived at the detention center, she collapsed. Mahsa died in hospital three days later. Five days before her 23rd birthday.
BBC News: At her funeral, women ripped their headscarves off in solidarity.
Outrage spread across the whole world.
CBC News clip one 0:00: Protesters in Vancouver are chanting, “Women. Life. Freedom.” It’s a similar scene in cities across the globe. And in places like Tehran, Toronto and Berlin, women are also chopping off their hair.
MUSIC: Arrest Protocol
Mahsa’s death sparked the biggest riots in Iran in the last 50 years.
BBC News: Mahsa’s death has created a tidal wave of opposition unlike anything seen in Iran for decades.
ITV News: The regime is in fear. Not the society anymore. The people are ready to die.
The Iranian government quickly tried to cover up Mahsa’s death. They said she had a preexisting health condition. They said she died of a heart attack. But it was all lies. And the people knew it.
BBC News: In just 16 days, it’s clear just how quickly and widely civil unrest has spread across Iran.
ITV News: A death that sparked the beginning of a revolt against government suppression in Iran in the days and nights after. Collective outrage and distress felt across the world.
CBC News: Some very dramatic scenes captured in the Iranian capital last night.
Hundreds of Iranian citizens were killed in the protests that autumn. Gunned down by police. Beaten to death. And hundreds more were thrown in prison.
Then in October, flames rose up from Evin Prison in Tehran. It’s the cruelest prison in the country. It houses political dissidents and religious minorities–including Christians.
CBC News: Protesters gathering on a highway close to the prison in what is an apparent show of solidarity with those locked up inside and as the protesters walk amongst the traffic along the roads leading to the facility. They can be heard chanting: “Death to the dictator.”
The Islamic Republic News Agency said the prisoners set fire to uniforms at a warehouse.
Prisoners and staff fought. Eight people were killed. Sixty-one injured.
MUSIC: Take the High Road
Marzi watched all this unfold from her home in Atlanta last fall. She knows exactly what it’s like to be oppressed in Iran as a woman. And persecuted in Iran as a Christian. She even knows what it feels like to be thrown into Evin Prison.
MARZI: And later in Evin Prison, we did the same thing: started talking to prisoners, a lot of prisoners about our faith. And our interrogators. They heard about that, how many people we taught, and prisoners are giving their hearts to Jesus. That’s why they got very mad.
LES: I’m Les Sillars. Today on Doubletake, the story of a woman and a friend who brought about a revolution. In one of the world’s most notorious prisons. Just not the kind of revolution involving protests and marches.
Here’s Anna Allen with our story.
We’ll take a short break, and then Anna Allen will be back with the story.
ANNA ALLEN: Iran wasn’t always so oppressive. The monarch of Iran, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, tried to modernize and secularize Iran for twenty years after World War II. He implemented programs to encourage industrialization. Here’s the Shah in a 1977 interview with PBS.
PBS News: My country is going to, obviously, play a more and more responsible role in our region.
His government had serious human rights issues. And there was still widespread poverty. But under the Shah, literacy rates in young girls slowly increased as education became available. In 1963, women were granted the right to vote. Hijabs were optional in public.
But as the reforms continued, a fierce Islamic ideologue named Ruhollah Khomeini was building up an underground opposition. He’d been exiled in 1964. In 1979 he unleashed a revolution. And he won.
NBC News: The end of Iran’s monarchy came early today when Khomeini’s followers took control of the palace of the Shah. The imperial guards there gave up without a struggle.
Growing up under the country’s radical new regime, Marzi was taught to hate Israel and America. Christians were dirty infidels.
Her father was a wealthy pistachio farmer and financial auditor. He was also Marzi’s best friend. He respected her in a way unheard of in Muslim culture, where males dominate. Her mother and brothers treated her like the second-class citizen her culture said she was.
When Marzi was seventeen, her world started to crumble. Her father became severely depressed and bipolar. Her mother had an affair. Her brothers became greedy, wanting to control all her father’s assets. They even pushed the courts to declare him mentally insane. Marzi was caught in the middle of a broken family. And her Islamic rituals brought her no closer to God.
MARZI: My theology teachers always taught us that we are sinner. And we can't have a close relationship with God. The only way is just to obey the Islamic rules […] I couldn't accept such a definition of God. And I was searching the truth about God.
She wrote in her memoir that she had her first dream about God when she was 17. She was trying to study for finals while her brother had a prostitute in the house. Her father was sick and depressed. She felt alone, helpless, and defeated.
But that night she dreamed that a white horse came down out of the sky.
Sit on my back, it said to her. She clung to the neck of the horse as it carried her into the sky. Saving her from an angry mob of Muslims trying to kill her. And then she woke up. She was immediately overwhelmed with a sense of God’s love.
MARZI: It was a love story. Because from the beginning, it was Jesus that revealed his love to me and I experienced His love.
She clung to that love throughout college and her family’s move to Tehran, the capital city of Iran. She began reading the Bible and wrestling with questions about the truth. One night in her mid-twenties, she found herself kneeling to pray. She was overwhelmed as the Holy Spirit filled her heart. She prayed and worshiped God until the early hours of the morning.
MARZI: That day, I believe was the foundation of my faith because I met Jesus in front of me. And it was that day that I dedicated whole my life to Jesus.
Under Iran’s Islamic law, Marzi’s conversion made her an official enemy of the state. A threat to the regime. But Marzi didn’t care. She had found the truth.
MARZI: When you experience such a deep relationship, when you experience the love of God, nothing can stop you. Nothing can change you, change your faith.
MUSIC: Rainbow Valley
Marzi secretly attended an Armenian church in Tehran. As she talked with her pastor, she felt the Lord calling her to leave Iran. Her pastor recommended a seminary program in Istanbul, Turkey.
During the 12-month program Marzi took classes and served refugees with fellow missionaries. She also met a woman with a similar story to her own: a young Iranian convert with a desire to share the Gospel in her homeland. Her name was Maryam Rostampour.
Maryam was raised in a nominal Muslim family in Tehran. She didn’t respond to requests for an interview. But recently she told a ministry to Muslims called Ifoundthetruth.com that when she was 17 she longed to know God.
MARYAM ROSTAMPOUR: I would just look up in the sky and talk to God. I didn’t know who He was.
She asked God to show her the truth.
MARYAM: And one day my sister came home. She had a booklet in her hand.
It outlined the Gospel.
MARYAM: And I remember I was just crying for three hours, and I read every single page in that book.
She became a Christian, got involved in a Tehran church, and a few years later headed to Turkey where she met Marzi. Marzi and Maryam immediately formed a deep friendship while rooming together. They both yearned to share the love of Jesus in Iran.
So after seminary, Marzi and Maryam moved back to Tehran in 2006 to begin mission work together. They both knew the risk of returning to Iran. They had become the Christians their country had taught them to hate.
MUSIC: Sixth Sense
They shared a modest apartment on the north side of the city. A dark orange couch sat across from a living room fireplace. The kitchen window looked out over the city. In the distance they could see the walls of Evin prison.
They couldn’t openly evangelize, so they decided to distribute Bibles across the city. Discreetly. They asked their pastor from seminary to smuggle New Testament Bibles into the country. It took months to set the dangerous plan in motion, but soon Marzi and Maryam were stashing thousands of Bibles in their apartment complex. Their apartment had a separate storage room in the basement for each resident. Stacks of Bibles filled their unit. A map of the city hung on the wall.
In the evening Marzi and Maryam would fill their backpacks with about 100 Bibles. At midnight they’d drive to a neighborhood and sneak Bibles into people’s mailboxes.
They hoped no one saw them or reported them to the police. They’d mark that neighborhood on their map with a little cross. The next night they would move to the next neighborhood. They left Bibles wherever they could—cafes, taxis, mailboxes. This undercover ministry went on for two years. No trouble from the police. But on March 5th, 2009, that changed…
MUSIC: Moody Tension
That day Marzi received an odd call from the police station. Something was wrong with her car documents. They told her to come to the Gisha police station by 2 o’clock. So she went. Maryam was at her dentist that morning.
Marzi waited at the station for about an hour and a half.
Finally, they escorted her to the office of Mr. Rasti. All Iranian government officials use pseudonyms. In Farsi, Rasti means “truth.” Marzi soon discovered that was rather ironic.
MARZI: They told me, “You’re not here because of your car documents. You’re here because of your Christian faith. And because we, our guards noticed that you were giving Bibles to people.”
Mr. Rasti mentioned just one time when a Revolutionary Guard saw Marzi handing someone a Bible in a restaurant. They didn’t know about the mailbox smuggling. But one time was all they needed. The officers handcuffed Marzi and hauled her back to her apartment. They wanted to search her home. No warrant and no warning.
When they got there Maryam had just returned from the dentist. She was still a little dazed from the medication when she heard banging at the door. She peered through the peephole. Marzi was standing there with three Revolutionary Guards.
They ordered the women to sit on the couch. They rummaged through every drawer, cabinet, and closet. Any kind of Christian literature they found—pamphlets, CDs, Bibles—they threw in a pile in front of the women.
MARZI: While they were searching my home, one guard told me that everywhere we search, we find something about Jesus on your refrigerator, on your wall, everything. And I told him, you can’t find anything except God in our home.
Whenever the guards spoke to them, Marzi and Maryam tried to appear confident. But they both knew what was at stake. The two exchanged knowing glances.
MARZI: In the basement, we had, like, more than 2,000 New Testaments. If they get those Bible, we knew that they are going to burn all of them. And I also knew that if they find all those New Testaments, they would kill us immediately.
The officers searched the house for more than two hours. They found plenty of evidence to detain the women. But they never thought to check the storage room.
The guards hauled both women back to the police station. Mr. Rasti peppered them with questions about their faith for two hours. He referred to them as “the guilty girls.” But guilty of violating what law exactly? It wasn’t clear to either of the women. There were no written charges. No lawyers.
MARZI: In Iran, there is no law. And when they wanted to do something, they’d do it. You can’t, you know, it’s not like the United States that you can have a lawyer or just you know, not to answer to their questions. They can do whatever they want.
Marzi and Maryam were transferred to the Vozara Detention Center to wait for their court summons. It’s a holding center for temporary prisoners. Most people only stay a few days. Soon they would either be released or sent to a more permanent prison.
MUSIC: Vacant Stare
Marzi and Maryam found themselves in a basement hallway with a row of five small cells on either side. It was dark, but their noses told them the place was filthy—clogged toilets, overflowing trash cans, moldy walls. Food and vomit littered the cold concrete floor. It was so repulsive the guards wouldn’t even enter the cells. A female guard pointed to a pile of blankets before she slammed the metal door behind them.
MARZI: When we started taking the blankets, we noticed that all of them are wet. And they had the smell of urine.
Other inmates were using the blankets as a toilet. And no coats, socks, or shoes were allowed in this dungeon. Marzi and Maryam found a place on the concrete among the rest of the blanketed figures.
It was midnight. Maryam’s mouth was still sore from her dentist appointment that morning. Marzi and Maryam were exhausted, hungry, and confused. What would happen to them? Would they be sentenced and for what crime? They didn’t even know if their family knew what had happened to them. Too tired even to be afraid, they prayed together and fell asleep.
The next morning in the detention center, Marzi and Maryam woke up to a woman screaming for a cigarette.
MUSIC: Still Life
Marzi hid under her blanket until she felt someone kick her side. She poked her head out and saw the woman standing over her, demanding a cigarette. She was young. Her dress was dirty and half unbuttoned. Her black matted hair hung in her face. Her teeth were rotten and falling out. She’s a witch straight from a horror movie, Marzi thought.
Marzi had no cigarettes, so the woman left. In the daylight, Marzi could see about 15 women in their cell. Ten cells made up the narrow hallway, and two more hallways of cells extended beyond that. Individual cells were unlocked during the day.
MUSIC: Approaching (Main)
It was Friday, the Muslim Sabbath. The courts were closed, so Marzi and Maryam’s case had to wait until Saturday. The witch woman was now smoking, crying, and shouting the names of Islamic prophets. Marzi and Maryam decided to introduce themselves. The woman’s name was Leila. She was arrested for buying drugs on the street. Her opium addiction had driven her to prostitution and homelessness. She had lived in a cardboard box in the park.
MARZI: They arrested a lot of women, innocent women, some of them were, you know, addicted, some of them were prostitutes, those prostitutes were those who didn’t have those legal documents.
Marzi says that in Islam, if you pay enough money you can get documents to be a prostitute. Prostitutes without the right papers will be …
MARZI: . . . arrested, and they send some of them to, you know, to get detention.
Through her tears Leila told Marzi and Maryam that Allah would not answer her prayers. Marzi offered to pray to Jesus for her. To Marzi’s surprise, Leila was grateful for their prayers and hugged them.
At lunch time, a guard slid a big saucepan of lentils and rice down the hall. Marzi and Maryam watched, disgusted, as the other inmates crowded around the pan and devoured the food.
MARZI: The guards treated us like animals and by putting food in a dirty pot and throwing it in front of us without any plates or spoons.
Saturday the courts reopened. Prisoner after prisoner was called to court, but not Marzi and Maryam. They waited all day but still no word. They didn’t sit idle in their cell though.
Their conversation with Leila had inspired them. They walked around the hall introducing themselves to women in the ward. The guards and inmates thought it strange to see such friendly people in that dark dungeon.
On Sunday, Marzi and Maryam were sent back to the not-so-truthful Mr. Truth.
MARZI: They told us that we are going to take you to the office for interrogation and you have to answer all our questions and whatever you know, whatever names you know, you should give us and otherwise we will beat you until you vomit blood.
Marzi’s mind was racing.
MARZI: What usually happens in the Iranian, in the Iranian prisons, and they torture people, they kill people, people do not have the right to have a lawyer, and no one, you know, will hear what happened to them. And at that time, we were so scared.
They were left in a tiny unkempt office to wait. They prayed for strength if they were to be tortured. But then…no one came. At nightfall the guards just took them back to Vozara.
MUSIC: Far Away
Marzi and Maryam were held at the detention center for fourteen days. They became known as “the Christian girls.” Their fellow prisoners were broken women. They had been abused by their communities, betrayed by their government, and forgotten by their religious leaders. They cried in vain to a fake god. Marzi and Maryam’s faith had led them to prison, and yet they clung to it. Their fellow inmates couldn’t understand it.
MARZI: I believed for 14 days that we were in that detention, we could share our faith with more than 60 women, most of them were crying. You know, they were hopeless and talking to them about Jesus and the love of God was amazing, would give them hope, and they gave their hearts to Jesus.
Marzi and Maryam were burdened for these women. And what about future prisoners who’d come after them? Finding pieces of chalk in their cell, Marzi and Maryam got an idea. They started writing Bible verses on the low ceilings. Maybe future inmates would see it and find hope.
Since the day she was arrested, Marzi had begged God to release her and Maryam. Why did he allow this suffering? As she talked to more prisoners, she started to see the answer.
MARZI: Before we go to prison, we had, we had to pray and ask God to show us the right person to speak about our faith. We had to be cautious. But in that place, we had a great opportunity to talk to anyone, and no one could stop us. I believe God intentionally wanted us to stay there…
When Marzi and Maryam prayed with someone the room would go silent. As they finished their prayer, a chorus of amens would fill the hall.
MARZI: It was like having a home church.
I asked Marzi if she was scared to talk about God in prison. After all, sharing the Gospel was what got them into this mess.
MARZI: They couldn’t do anything else with us. We were already in prison, what else they could do with us? They couldn’t stop us talking.
After two weeks in the Vozara Detention Center, Marzi and Maryam were finally brought to the infamous Revolutionary Court in Tehran. It’s an imposing, three-story sandstone building with narrow windows. They had no idea what Iran’s shoddy legal system would do to them behind those doors.
Outside the court, Iranians were preparing for their Persian New Year’s celebration. Marzi and Maryam had planned to distribute Bibles in other Iranian cities during the holiday. Instead, they were inside the court, waiting. Beyond the closed door they could hear faint voices in the judge’s office.
Soon the guards came and loaded them in the car. But this time they were not headed back to Vozara.
They were going to Evin Prison. The Evin Prison. As suspects in a crime against the state, they’d stay there until their trial. They didn’t know when that would be. They didn’t know their official charge. They had never talked to any judge or lawyer. But there they were, headed to the harshest, most violent prison in Iran. Because they gave someone a Bible.
MARZI: The day that they transferred us to Evin Prison. Honestly, first of all I was, I had so much fear, I knew that, you know, that's a notorious prison. We could see the wall of prison and every day after doing our chores, we would drive by the walls of that prison. And sometimes I would pray for those prisoners inside that prison.
Now, Marzi and Maryam would be those prisoners. Guards led them through the looming front gate and into a rundown little office. There, the guards finger-printed them and took their mugshots. The women had to hold a sign while being photographed. Marzi’s read: “Marziyeh Amirizadeh, accused of promoting Christianity in Iran.”
MARZI: That seemed ridiculous to us because we didn’t consider ourselves crim-criminals. And they treated us like criminals. And taking those photos. When they took that photo, I just smiled.
Inside the walls, Evin looked like a little town of shoddy red brick buildings. It could hold 15,000 prisoners. The guards escorted Marzi and Maryam to the women’s quarters. Women accused of murder or prostitution lived downstairs. Marzi and Maryam went upstairs with those charged with fraud or crimes against the state. Soon they were standing in front of their cell—Room 1.
Three triple-stacked bunkbeds lined the walls—not nearly enough for the 50 women who lived in Room 1. The cell was about 300 square feet. That’s a little smaller than a two-car garage. The air was a combination of sweat, vomit, mold, and clogged toilets. The very walls seemed toxic.
Marzi and Maryam were surprised at the number of small children in the prison. Some only five or even two years old. They said they had been born there. Clearly abused. One day Maryam was in the prison yard.
MARYAM: And one of those kids saw for the first time a bird in the sky. He was so shocked, and he was just screaming and pointing out that bird. It was so heartbreaking you know …
Inmates peppered Marzi and Maryam with questions. Why are you here? What is your charge? Some tried to shame them for converting from Islam. Others handed them a dirty cup of tea and pointed them to the showers.
As Marzi and Maryam made their way around, an Armenian woman named Silva introduced herself. “I’d like to get to know you. I’m a Christian too,” she told them.
Silva had worked for an American charity. Her last business trip to Iran lasted longer than expected. The Iranian government got suspicious and eventually arrested her. Silva soon became Marzi and Mayram’s dearest friend.
The guards were particularly harsh on the “Christian girls.” Muslim culture taught them to treat Christians like unclean outcasts. They denied Marzi and Maryam even basic amenities that other inmates got. For instance, prisoners at Evin could take a few classes and do some activities offered by the prison’s cultural center.
Marzi asked one guard how she could sign up for classes. The guard asked Marzi what her charges were.
MARZI: As soon as I told her that I’m here because of my Christian faith, she got so mad and she shouted at me, “Get out of here! You're dirty. You're not allowed to be here! You should be executed immediately!” and that broke my heart honestly. I told her, “You know what, I’m not a criminal. I’m here because of the name of Jesus, and I’m proud of that,” then I left her office.
The more devout Muslim inmates also shunned the Christian girls.
MARZI: We felt that we were in another prison inside Evin Prison.
But they didn’t cower in their corner. They didn’t just pray for God to sustain them. They prayed for the women around them. Fights were common in the ward, as was lesbian romance. Every night they could hear inmates wailing.
Their cellmates soon noticed that Marzi and Maryam were different. Weeks went by and the other women’s questions about God became more genuine than accusative. Even some of the more devout Muslims started asking the Christian girls to pray for them.
And new prisoners were always packing in. Many came from Vozara.
MARZI: And they told us that they, they were able to read those verses on the walls and the ceiling. And that gave them very much hope. And they thanked us for doing that.
Marzi was amazed to see God working. She and Maryam shared their faith with any woman they could, just like they did at Vozara.
MUSIC: Almost Forgotten
Marzi and Maryam often endured long hours of interrogations with government officials. Eventually their interrogators caught wind of their evangelizing. One official demanded Marzi stop brainwashing people with her fake religion.
MARZI: And also I told him, I believe it is your fault by arresting us. And prisoners are curious, they asked us why we are here, and what is our charge, and we have to explain to them why they are here.
MARZI: They wanted to see that you beg and ask forgiveness, you know, to say that you made a mistake, to, especially in our case, they wanted to see that we were broken, and we deny our faith in Jesus.
But Marzi refused to cower.
MARZI: I told him if you, even if you cut each part of my body, you're not able to separate Jesus from me. We felt that they were able only to imprison our physical bodies in that dark place. But they were not able to imprison our souls, which were free. I felt I was more freer inside prison rather than outside.
While her faith remained strong, Marzi’s body grew weaker. The prison food reeked of chemicals and made her gag. They often found flies, plastic, or broken teeth in the food. She choked down only about one meal a week. Because of filthy crowded living conditions and rotten food, the place was drenched in sickness and disease.
Many days, Marzi faced crippling back and stomach pain. She’d lie in bed for hours, crying until her face turned blue. The small clinic in the prison was little help. The doctor’s first question was always, what is your charge?
MARZI: And as soon as they would hear that we were Christians, they refused to give us medications.
MUSIC: Finally A Good Spirit
One night while lying in her bunk with a splitting headache, Marzi had a dream.
MARZI: In that dream, I saw a big hole in my right hand, and I was looking at that hole, remembering Jesus that died for our sins. And I felt such an honor that God allowed me to taste just a little of His suffering.
Little mercies from God sustained them. On April 12, 2009, Marzi, Maryam, and Silva gathered in the tiny prison courtyard. It was Easter Sunday. To Marzi’s surprise, Silva pulled out a piece of communion bread dipped in wine. Her mother had managed to smuggle it to Silva during her last visit to the prison.
MARZI: She brought out the bread and we shared that and it was all with tears. We hugged each other … I can say that was the best communion I have ever had.
Marzi and Maryam had been in Room 1 for a month and a half when they learned they’d be moving to Ward 209. They had heard of Ward 209 from the other inmates. That’s where Silva had sat in solitary confinement for eight months. Shirin was beaten unconscious there. And just the night before, an inmate they knew had been dragged to Ward 209 and then executed.
MARZI: They executed her in order to show me that, what will be the cost of our resistance, and they wanted to break me.
The guards led Marzi and Maryam blindfolded down an eerily quiet hallway into two separate cells. They wouldn’t see each other for two weeks. Marzi was crammed into a six-foot cell with two other women. Maryam with one. They endured six-hour long interrogations and demands that they renounce their faith.
MARZI: They told us if we just write one sentence, renouncing our faith in Jesus, then we would have been set free, but we refuse…
Marzi and Maryam lived each day wondering when the interrogations would turn violent…would the guards beat them…or worse? But they never did.
After one interrogation, Maryam felt empty. That God had abandoned her. She lay down by her cellmate. She wasn’t even supposed to talk loudly. But she started to sing anyway. Worship songs.
MARYAM: And I remember at the beginning, my cellmate, she was so scared and she was saying, “Maryam, please, be quiet, they will come and they will punish you.” But I kept singing. And I remember after singing for like 10 minutes I could feel that that cell was full of God’s presence.
Later her cellmate asked her to teach her some of those worship songs.
While in Ward 209, Marzi got one 15-minute conversation with her sister. Marzi’s sister is also a Christian. She was trying to get Marzi and Maryam a lawyer. She hired a well-known human rights defender, a Mr. Soltani, but he was soon arrested for trying to represent them. Word of their arrest was also spreading to various Christian aid ministries. Thousands of Christians around the world were praying and advocating for Marzi and Maryam. Along with various international organizations.
MARZI: It was at that time that we felt that we are not alone. And many people know about our case, know that we were in prison, that was so encouraging.
Christians launched online petitions. Jubilee Campaign USA submitted a formal petition to the United Nations. Even the Pope sent a letter to the Iranian government on their behalf.
MARZI: We felt that we were not alone in that prison. We had a big Christian family that, they were supporting us; they were praying for us.
With pressure from the United Nations and other international groups, the Iranian regime was now in an uncomfortable position.
MARZI: We knew the truth, that even if nobody knew about us, they would definitely go ahead and executed us.
But now, others were aware of the abuse. The Iranian government couldn’t just execute them quietly. It would have been embarrassing. Basically confirming the accusations of human rights abuses. Yet, they couldn’t let the women out while they still professed Christianity.
Too many eyes were on the Iranian government. But not just because of these two prisoners. It was the summer of 2009.
ABCNews: Riots have erupted in Iran tonight after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner of the hotly contested presidential race by a landslide. Polls leading up to the election had shown a possible victory by his opponent, Mir-Hossein Mousavi.
ABCNews RIOTERS: “We want freedom! We want freedom!”
ABCNews REPORTER: “Down down with the dictator!” That’s what the protestors have been shouting. This is a city under lockdown.
That summer protests erupted over the Iranian election. The government cracked down, arresting hundreds of prisoners. Many of them ended up in Evin Prison with Marzi and Maryam.
But the riots and protests eventually fizzled out. After five and a half weeks in Ward 209, Marzi and Maryam returned to a much more crowded Ward 2.
Despite the attention Marzi and Maryam’s case was getting, there was still no end in sight. By September of 2009 they’d been in prison for six months. But Marzi saw it as an opportunity to share the Gospel with even more cellmates, like Tahmasebi. She was a devout Muslim sentenced to life for smuggling drugs. She had already spent the last 13 years in and out of jail. She thought Marzi and Maryam were crazy for giving up their freedom for their faith.
MUSIC: Peril Dawn
MARZI: She said, “You can easily renounce your faith and get out of this horrible place. Why you are insisting on your faith, and torturing yourself in this dark place?” I told her that, you know, they just kept kept us in this prison, but I am free, I feel free in Jesus. This is my faith. And I’m not going to renounce my faith.
Marzi prayed for Tahmasebi and tried sharing her faith with her. Marzi believes that one night God gave her a vision that Tahmasebi would be released in six weeks. Tahmasebi didn’t believe it, but six weeks later she was pardoned. Marzi gave her a little wooden cross the day she was released. She clung to it, saying she would keep it forever.
MARZI: Some of them were not able to understand it, that I was in love with Jesus. I was enjoying that God gave us that opportunity to share our faith with a lot of people who were hopeless. And some of them like her, they were sentenced to life in prison. And we were able to pray for them and give them hope to give their hearts to Jesus, they could see miracles. That’s why I was so happy, even though physically I was suffering.
Even the guards started to take notice of Marzi and Maryam’s faith. They witnessed the change in prisoners when they prayed with the Christian girls. Some guards apologized to Marzi and Maryam and asked for prayer.
MARZI: I was surprised that, hearing such things from a Muslim, a guard that before, a few days before she was insulting me.
Some of the guards that had mocked them earlier became their friends. To Marzi, it was a miracle.
MARZI: When we could see all those miracles, we felt that, okay, God has a purpose for keeping us here. And we should trust Him. We need to focus on other prisoners, not ourselves.
As the months passed, Marzi and Maryam’s case gained more and more public attention. New inmates recognized them as “the Christian girls on TV.”
MARZI: I believe one of the reasons that they didn’t torture us physically, it’s because of Christian support. And many people who started advocating for us as a result of that they, they started changing their behavior with us.
For the first time since their arrest, Marzi and Maryam were granted a contact visit with their sisters. That meant they could actually hug them and talk with them for 15 minutes. They learned they finally had a lawyer. Mr. Aghasi.
On the morning of October 7, 2009, Marzi and Maryam boarded the bus headed for the Revolutionary Court. After almost eight months in prison, they were finally going before a judge.
That day was special for another reason too.
MUSIC: Nothing But the Blood
It was the four-year anniversary of Marzi’s baptism. On that day four years ago, she was in seminary in Turkey. One evening Marzi gathered with fellow Christians on the coast of the Marmara Sea to be baptized. When she stepped into the water, the pastor asked her three questions: Are you a Christian? Are you called to follow Jesus? What do you mean by that?
At the time it was easy to answer. She knew Jesus as her Lord and Savior and pledged to follow him no matter what.
Now Marzi and Maryam sat in a small court room next to their new lawyer, Mr. Aghasi. At the end of the room sat a middle-aged judge on a raised desk. Behind him on the wall hung a large photo of the Scales of Justice. Marzi’s stomach turned.
MARZI: But I prayed, and I said, God, please give me the strength and power to claim your name, to stand up for my faith.
The judge reviewed the charges. He acquitted them of instigating propaganda against the state after finding no substantiated evidence. The charge of apostasy remained valid. The judge turned to Marzi.
“Miss Amirizadeh, are you a Christian? Are you called to follow Jesus? Explain to me what you mean by that.”
These were the same questions her pastor had asked at her baptism.
MARZI: God showed me that, told me that, Marziyeh, at that, the same day, you know, you are gathered with your friends and you claim your faith in Jesus. And He wanted to test me that in the face of execution by hanging, in the face of death, are you going to announce your faith again?
She explained to the judge that Jesus was more than just a prophet. He was the Son of God and her Savior. Maryam also testified to Christ.
MARZI: God gave me the power to announce my faith in front of a judge who told me if you’re going to keep insisting you will face execution by hanging. And I had a big, long, long conversation with the judge about my faith in Jesus
These were not the kind of statements that were going to get them their freedom.
MARZI: And he insisted us to renounce it and to get released, not to stay in prison and I told him if I wanted to renounce my faith in Jesus, I would do it the in the first day not after six months of mentally get tortured by you.
Their lawyer was also shocked by their strong convictions. Mr. Aghasi’s goal was to do whatever he had to do to get the women released. He tried to water down their statements, explaining that they did not intend to convert people. They saw Jesus as other religions do.
This, of course, was not true. As Mr. Aghasi gave his defense, Marzi shouted, “Judge, my lawyer is wrong!”
MUSIC: Finding Power
Every eye in the courtroom turned to her. She explained what she really believed. She didn’t see Jesus as other religions do. He was the Son of God and her Savior.
MARZI: It’s easy to claim our faith in Jesus when nothing happened, when you know everything is fine, you are gathered with your friends. But there may be time in your life that God wanted to test you that still you are going to claim your faith in Jesus or not.
Mr. Aghasi’s face was beet red with anger. The judge was shocked. But then he told them, “Stand by your beliefs. After all, everything in this world comes at a price. If they have reached this conclusion and believed in what they say, then they will have to pay the price for it.”
MARZI: I felt so good after that, that I passed that test with victory that I was able to stand for my faith, even in the face of death and execution.
At the end of the trial, the judge deferred their case to a different court, which meant more waiting. They went back to Evin Prison.
Over the next month, they met with the chief prosecutor three times. Marzi and Maryam never backed down. The now-friendly guards of Evin tried to give them any news they heard about their case. Their cellmates continued to pray with them.
MUSIC: Calm Before the Storm
And then on November 18th a guard burst into Marzi’s cell. Their freedom papers had arrived! The ward erupted in cheers and hugs and tears. As they walked out of the prison, they gave a tearful goodbye to all their fellow inmates. Cellmates had become a congregation of dear friends.
After nearly nine months in the worst prison in Iran, Marzi and Maryam were finally going home. But they were leaving behind a church. The place meant to silence Marzi and Maryam had become a pulpit for God’s truth.
MARZI: I believe, as Christians, everything is in God's control. When we trust, we should just trust Him. We shouldn't scare the storms. […] If you walk with God, if you live with God, then you will see that how you come out of those storms, stronger, more faithful, and have a more deep relationship with Jesus.
A few months after their release, Marzi and Maryam moved to the United States. They would never be fully free from government surveillance if they stayed in Iran. In 2013 they wrote a book about their experience called Captive in Iran.
Maryam now lives in Washington, DC. Marzi lives in Atlanta. She travels the U.S. sharing her story.
It’s been a year since the protests over Mahsa Amini’s death rocked Iran. Some Iranians are still protesting and for a while hijab [hee-JAAB] rules were seldom enforced.
MUSIC: Exquisite Majesty
But Iran’s Islamic regime is still firmly in control. Thousands of citizens have been thrown into jail and hundreds killed. And just last month the morality police returned to patrol the streets. One activist told NPR through an interpreter last spring that the demonstrations were never an existential threat to the government.
NPR: From my own perspective, no. I am not so hopeful that the Iranian society is capable of causing fundamental changes like toppling the Islamic Republic.
But Marzi says other kinds of change are more important than replacing a government.
MARZI: I believe we made a revolution inside of prison. We turned Evin Prison, the darkest of place, into our church.
Anna Allen reported this episode of Doubletake. Anna, Emma Perley, and I wrote it. Produced with the help of the creative team at World Radio. I’m Les Sillars.
Next time, on Doubletake.
Jake Hall: All right. So we’ve got suction, water bottles, obviously your chair, and…I think we’re all set, man.
John Piper: Everything is irrevocably changed. And nobody asked you.
Jake: Sometimes it’s overwhelming. It’s okay to cry while you run. It’s hard, but you can do it. I just feel a lot of gratitude when I run from all that went into it.
Please do take a minute to rate and review Doubletake. Or share it on social media. It's super-important for helping others find this program.
And email us with your comments at email@example.com. We want to hear from you, and we read everything.
Finally, if you have an idea for an episode, send it to us. We’re looking for story ideas that make us, well, do a double take. We’ll see you next time.
WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.