Pastors, lawmakers, and survivors of incarceration in the infamous Evin Prison took turns at the podium telling stories of fear, isolation, torture, and even death. But a message of hope prevailed as people testified that despite their mistreatment and because of their faith, they felt God was in control, and they laid claim to a future where freedom to worship as a universal right would be possible.
“The ultimate freedom for the human species is the freedom to be able to have a relationship with God almighty under the terms and conditions that they choose,” Rep. Bill Johnson (R-OH) said at the International Christian Concern’s Capitol Hill Policy Day event.
Maryam Rostampour and Marziyeh Amirizadeh also attended the event. The two women were born and raised in Iran and said that, as school girls, they were forced to study the Quran, wear prescribed clothing, and routinely chant “death to America” and “death to Israel.”
The two became Christians and met at a Christian conference in Turkey. When they returned to Iran, they were determined to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with friends, neighbors, and strangers. Before they were arrested for spreading Christian propaganda in 2009, they distributed some 20,000 New Testaments.
And even when they were imprisoned and forced to live in small cells, sleeping under urine-covered blankets and facing daily threats that their sentence to be executed by hanging could happen any day, the two women found hope and purpose.
They said many other cellmates were women without families, prostitutes, and others who had no support from the outside world.
“It was then that we realized God had a purpose for sending us to the dark place,” Rostampour said. “So instead of praying for our release, we started to pray for those women in prison.”
“What the enemy meant for evil, God turned to good,” Rostampour said.
“Today, we give all the glory to Jesus who saved us from the Iranian government,” Amirizadeh said. “We believe we are free and alive today because of Jesus’s power and his miracle.”
Their reputation for helping others led to word of the women’s plight, which spread far beyond the prison walls to the United States, Amnesty International, the United Nations, and Pope Benedict XVI, all of whom pressured the Iranian government to release them. After 259 days of captivity, they were released.
They eventually left for Turkey and were chosen to come to the United States as refugees.
Rostampour and Amirizadeh have been in the United States for more than a decade, but have not stopped trying to help their fellow Iranians, who face ruthless treatment under the Khomeini regime. They wrote a book about their experiences and came to Washington, DC, to tell lawmakers to keep the pressure on the government to stop persecuting Christians, people of the Baha’i faith, and other religious minorities.
Amirizadeh and others spoke to lawmakers, representatives from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), think tanks, and religious liberty advocates — including Sam Brownback, U.S. ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom, and Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Center and commissioner of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).
Speakers at the event shared statistics about the extent of Christian persecution around the world, including the Christian World Watch Monitor report that said in 2016 some 193 Christians were arrested in Iran because of their religious affiliation.
Open Doors USA reported that one in nine Christians worldwide experience high levels of persecution and that, in eight of the top ten countries where Christians experience severe persecution, the oppression is directly connected to Islamic oppression.
In Iran, despite the persecution, the Christian faith is not being driven out, according to Hormoz Shariat, president of Iran Alive Ministries. Shariat converted from Islam to Christianity in the 1980s and has spent decades helping his fellow Christians in Iran.
“In Iran, the norm is if somebody comes to Christ, most likely the family members also come to Christ,” Shariat said. “Because Christianity has a very positive image in Iran. More positive than Islam. Can you believe it?”
Iranians think Christianity is more positive and that its faith is more respected than Islam’s, Shariat claimed, which is causing more and more conversions.