Accused of promoting Christianity, Maryam and Marziyeh spent 259 days under frequent interrogation and abuse in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison. The official charges against them — apostasy, anti-government activity and blasphemy — came with a sentence of execution by hanging.
The two women had been born into Muslim families in Iran. They met and became Christians as young adults while studying theology in Turkey. When they returned to Iran in 2005, they began sharing their new faith. And, four years later, they landed in prison.
Following international pressure, Maryam and Marziyeh were freed in November 2009 and subsequently cleared of all charges. World Relief, the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals, helped them resettle in the United States.
What led you to become followers of Jesus?
We both converted to Christianity 16 years ago. At that time we did not know each other. We both were looking for the truth from very young age and wanted to have personal relationship with God, to hear his voice, and to have a two-way communication with him.
We did not have many opportunities in Iran to learn about other religions. We were brainwashed and forced to follow Islam as children. We did not experience a personal relationship with God in Islam, and the God that Qu’ran introduces to people seemed out of reach. So, we started questioning Islam, the Qu’ran and its rules, and at the same time we prayed in our heart to a God that we did not know and asked him to reveal the truth to us.
We have different stories about our individual encounters with Jesus and the way that he revealed the truth to us. We have met him and tasted his love, and that is why we gave our hearts to him.
What compelled you to return to Iran, knowing that you might face persecution for being followers of Jesus?
We both had the same passion in our hearts to send the message of salvation to our people in Iran, because we knew how much Iranians were looking for the truth. That was the reason we decided to go back and share the love of Jesus with more Iranians.
Describe your experience in prison. What sustained your faith as you faced the possibility of being executed?
We were held in one of the most notorious prisons in the world for nine months, where people have been tortured, interrogated and executed for crimes they did not commit. We saw many injustices. We were tortured mentally, we did not have access to lawyer, we could not contact our family members, and physically we were under so much pressure. Every day we were threatened to execution by hanging.
The only thing that helped us stand on our faith was our personal relationship with Jesus. The Holy Spirit gave us strength and power to stand that difficult condition. Without his presence we could not stand even one day in prison.
How have World Relief and local Christians assisted in your resettlement and adjustment to life in America?
World Relief was a huge help and blessing to us. Most of the staff are very good friends of ours. They are very supportive, kind and caring. Like other refugees who come to this country, we received the government’s help through World Relief. They have also supported us by their prayers.
What can American Christians do to support and encourage those facing persecution oceans away?
American Christians should appreciate the valuable freedom that they have in this country. Also, we would encourage Americans to use their freedom to support their brothers and sisters who are under persecution — by prayers, by sending letters to prisoners, by spreading the message of persecution, by giving and by asking their governments and their politicians to put pressure on governments like Iran.
As the Bible says, “We are all parts of one body. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it.”
This article originally appeared in Evangelicals magazine.