Both were raised in Muslim homes in Iran but never embraced Islam. As young adults, they became Christians and met each other while studying theology in Turkey in 2005. When they returned to Iran, they began evangelizing together for several years, covertly distributing Bibles to some 20,000 people and starting two secret house churches. In March 2009, they were arrested in Tehran for promoting Christianity, which is punishable by death.
The regime officially charged them with apostasy, anti-government activity and blasphemy, and they were sentenced to execution by hanging. Before being cleared of all charges and released in 2009 as a result of worldwide prayer and international pressure, they endured 259 days in Evin prison. Thereafter, they moved to the United States and wrote a book together describing their horrendous experiences, "Captive in Iran."
In Evin, which is notorious "for torturing, raping and executing innocent people," they experienced brutal and humiliating treatment, poisoning and illness. They each endured solitary confinement and were interrogated once a week for eight or nine hours at a time. All the while, whether together or separated, they prayed for each other.
The first week, they were horrified and prayed to be released. But soon, they came to see their presence in prison as an opportunity to witness to other prisoners, many of whom were prostitutes and addicts and "so hopeless and sad." Maryam and Marziyeh prayed for them and saw God work in their lives as they cried and confessed their sins. It became "like a church for us," said Marziyeh.
Maryam said there was only one day out of the 259 during which she couldn't feel the presence of God. "That was the worst experience I ever had in my life," she said. "I was so sad. I didn't know what to do."
She was in a cell with a Muslim woman — a political prisoner — in a building where no loud noises were allowed. But she heard a voice inside her telling her to start singing. "I wanted to sing, but I couldn't find the words. (So) I started singing in tongues very loudly, and the woman in the cell with me was so scared she told me to quit singing, but I continued singing, and after one hour, I could feel the presence of the Holy Spirit all around me and in my cell." She said that her Muslim cellmate could also feel the presence of God and asked whether they could sing together in Farsi. "So I taught her some worship songs, and we started singing with each other, and after two hours, I could really feel the peace and joy, and God told me, 'I am with you every day, even if you don't feel my presence.'"
At any time, they could have secured their own release by simply renouncing their Christian faith, but they each emphatically refused, saying, "We will never renounce our faith." Marziyeh told one Muslim prisoner who said they were "silly" for not renouncing their faith: "Our insistence on our faith is not out of stubbornness. ... I have lived with God for many years. ... He is my all. We are inseparable. My life has no value without him. I love God so much that denying him would be denying my own existence. How could I ever deny something that is in every cell of my body? I would rather spend the rest of my life in prison if that's what it takes to stay close to him. I would rather be killed than kill the spirit of Christ within me."
Maryam and Marziyeh feel they were ultimately released from prison because of God's grace.
I find it moving that they were ambivalent about being released. Marziyeh related in their book: "Though my body was free, my soul and spirit were still with our precious friends suffering terrible injustice inside Evin Prison. This thought made it impossible for me to enjoy our new situation. I felt strangely indifferent to our liberation." They consider it an honor to have experienced a little of Christ's suffering by being imprisoned in his name. "It was important for us to suffer," they said.
They closed their book with this: "We had no idea what the Lord had in mind for us. For all the heartache we have experienced on this journey, we wouldn't have missed it for anything. It has been our honor to serve Christ in this way, to take up our cross and follow Him faithfully anywhere He leads us."
They promised their friends in prison that they would pray for them and be a voice for them. So they've devoted their lives to be "a voice for the voiceless."
What a different place this world would be if the rest of us had just half the faith of these courageous, devoted women.