Hazel McHaffie

Vatican

Hell on earth

Evin prison in Tehran has a worse reputation than Alcatraz, and it was this nightmarish place I was reading about when I sent last week’s post. Coincidentally, it came up in the news only a couple of days ago, in an interview with a dual national, Kurdish/British, academic, an anthropologist, who recently escaped while out on bail from Evin, trekking on foot through the mountains, and has now taken refuge in Britain. He had already undergone three months of psychological torture, and couldn’t face another 10 years.

Built during the reign of the Shah of Iran, this notorious compound, Evin prison, was originally intended to hold opponents to his regime. Since his fall from power in 1979, it’s been used for political prisoners, solitary confinement, and torture of those deemed to be enemies of the Islamic state. It has an horrific record in serious human rights abuses. Originally designed to house 320 inmates — 20 in solitary cells and 300 in two large communal blocks — by 1977 it had expanded to hold more than 1,500 prisoners, including 100 solitary cells for political prisoners. It has its own execution yard and courtroom on site, which probably says a lot.

And yet, two Iranian women, Marziyeh Amarizadeh and Maryam Rostampour, found it easier to experience God’s presence and peace there, and for their Christian faith to thrive, than in the outside world. Why?

Because inside this dark hell they turned on the light for so many others, and saw the amazing opportunities for witness that incarceration offered. In the deepest recesses of the most feared ward in the most notorious prison in one of the most oppressed nations in the world they could pray with and for their fellow prisoners and their captors openly and courageously.
… how easy it was to witness behind bars compared to the work we had done on the outside. [We] didn’t have to look for prospects or sneak New Testaments into their mailboxes. We could talk to them openly rather than hiding behind closed doors or in basements. Our fellow prisoners were hungry for the truth. Desperate for it.

And they used every opportunity they could. As Anne Graham Lotz says in her foreword:
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,
and they (with John Perry) have recounted what life was like in that hell hole in Captive in Iran.

Marziyeh Amarizadeh and Maryam Rostampour were both born into Muslim families in Iran. They became Christians in 1998, and met while studying Christian theology in Turkey in 2005. They extended their ministry to India, S Korea and Turkey. When they returned to Iran, they began spreading the gospel message to anyone who would listen, handing out 20,000 New Testaments, and starting two house churches in their apartment in Tehran – one for young people, one for prostitutes. But after three years, in March 2009, they were arrested and imprisoned for 259 days in Evin Prison on charges of apostasy, anti-government activity and blasphemy. There was ample evidence of their activities.

Technically it’s not illegal to be a Christian in Iran, but converting from Islam to another faith, as well as evangelising on behalf of that faith, are considered crimes of apostasy punishable by death. Accordingly the threat of execution hung over these two young women throughout their detention in Evin. But in spite of it, and in defiance of the squalor, the stench, the overcrowding, the terrible food, the incompetent medical care, the punitive routines, they continued to share their deep faith and hope, and found responsive hearts and minds amongst the drug addicts, the murderers, the political rebels, the staunch Muslims, the abused, even amongst some of the guards.
Never in our lives would we form friendships as deep and rich as the ones God had blessed us with behind the high and foreboding walls of Evin Prison.
To their surprise, they found a common bond: they were united by their fierce opposition to the injustice and brutality of the prevailing oppressive regime, that has destroyed the body and soul of the Iranian people.

And outside, a growing movement was publicising their plight and seeking justice. Thousands around the world prayed for their freedom. International pressure was brought to bear on their behalf. Amnesty International, the United Nations and the Vatican all got involved. But even when it was clear the charges against them could not be upheld, somehow a way needed to be found that allowed the authorities to release them without losing face. After many false starts, it was eventually found.

After their release they faced a new and real danger. Not only would they be constantly observed for any infringement of the law, no matter how slight, but anyone they met or fraternised with was in jeopardy. They were torn.
Despite what the government did to us, we continue to love our country very much and pray for the freedom of our fellow Iranians …
They so much wanted to help everyone to find freedom in faith, but the prospect of being instrumental in the death or imprisonment of their fellow Iranians was too much for them. In the end they elected to emigrate to the USA.

Captive in Iran is at one a damning indictment of a harsh and punitive regime, and a triumph of good over evil. Would I have had the courage to see incarceration in this prison hell as a God-given opportunity? I very much doubt it.

 

 

 

 

 

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