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TIMMERMAN: Taking on Tehran, one prisoner at a time

Letters arriving for Christian detainees tell jailers the world is watching

Most Americans look at Iran with a mixture of revulsion and fatalism. The regime is about as bad as repressive regimes get, just behind North Korea. Like North Korea, it is working hard to develop a militarily useful arsenal of nuclear weapons in defiance of the international community. Yet, the United States has shown itself powerless to do anything about it.

Early on in the 1970s revolution, not long after well-organized "students" seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini sneered at aides who urged him to release the hostages. "America can do nothing," he said.

Tehran's ruling clerics are determined to prove Khomeini right yet again, as they stand defiant against five United Nations Security Council resolutions and an increasingly tight net of international financial and diplomatic sanctions that has devastated the value of their currency and hurt ordinary Iranians, but not the regime.

So here is one small thing that Americans who care about our freedom and security can do to help undermine the regime in Tehran: adopt an Iranian political prisoner and write to him or her in Iran.

Marziyeh Amirzadeh and Mariyam Rostampour were arrested in March 2009 because the regime suspected them of evangelizing Muslims. In fact, both women were born into Muslim families and became Christians in their teens, as their search for meaning through Islam left them thirsty for truth.

They traveled to Turkey to attend a seminary for former Muslim believers, then returned to Iran to deliver Persian-language editions of the Gospel to all who expressed an interest. Over a three-year period, they handed out more than 20,000 Bibles in Tehran and other cities, repeatedly passing unharmed through security roadblocks with their dangerous contraband as if under divine protection.

When they were finally thrown into Iran's notorious Evin prison, accused as spies for promoting Christianity, they didn't know whether they were about to die. They prayed together to gather courage and strength.

They also prayed with other inmates in their cellblock broken women who had turned to prostitution to make ends meet, or who sought solace in drugs from the brutality of life in today's Iran, where Muslim men virtually own the women of their family and can mistreat them viciously and at will.

Soon, something remarkable began to happen: The women in prison began to pray with them. "We turned Evin Prison into our church," says Maryam.

I had the opportunity to meet these two remarkable young women at a recent event in Washington, D.C., sponsored by Nina Shea, who directs the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom.

Maryam and Marziyeh shared their testimony and recounted the appalling conditions inside Evin Prison, which they have written about with such poise and beauty in their gripping memoir, "Captive in Iran" (Tyndale Momentum, 2013).

During their 38-day interrogation, regime officials repeatedly threatened to execute them if they didn't recant their Christian faith. "So the first reason we are here able to tell this story is God's grace," Maryam said.

As word reached the outside world of their plight, ordinary Christians began sending them letters. At the peak, a prison guard who came to sympathize with them after they prayed together told them that 40 to 50 letters were arriving for them at Evin every day.

Even though the authorities never actually gave them the letters, the two young women knew that others on the outside were aware of their plight. "That really helped, and it embarrassed the regime. Outside pressure forced them to release us," Maryam believes.

The remarkable expansion of the house church movement in Iran has unsettled the Islamic regime for years. Regime President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reportedly boasted to provincial governors in 2005 shortly after he took office, "I will stop Christianity in this country."

Pastors began disappearing, especially those who came from a Muslim upbringing and converted. When killing wasn't enough of a deterrent, Mr. Ahmadinejad and his goons began to lock them up, demanding that they recant their faith since apostasy in Islam is punishable by death.

Today, thanks to organizations such as the American Center for Law and Justice, we have learned about the trials of pastors such as Youcef Naderkhani, who was repeatedly threatened with execution if he did not recant his faith, and Saeed Abedini, an American who was imprisoned during a trip to his homeland and who has been refused medical treatment for the injuries caused by sustained beatings from his jailers.

The Islamic regime in Iran has refined political and religious repression to near mathematical perfection. It seeks to break people, both physically and spiritually. It likes to kill quietly, behind closed doors, beyond the gaze of the outside world.

In their remarkable memoir and at their website, CaptiveInIran.com, Marziyeh Amirzadeh and Maryam Rostampour show us a way of wedging open those doors so the light of freedom can burst through.

Kenneth R. Timmerman is president of the Foundation for Democracy in Iran and the author of "Countdown to Crisis: the Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran" (Crown Forum, 2005).

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