Captive in Iran, a Biography Club Book Review

We’re not afraid of death. What we’re afraid of is life without faith, life without our Saviour, Jesus Christ.

Maryam Rostampour & Marziyeh Amirizadeh, with John Perry, Captive in Iran, (Tyndale: 2013), p.216

Title: Captive in Iran

Caption: A remarkable true story of hope and triumph amid the horror of Tehran’s brutal Evin Prison.

Authors: Maryam Rostampour and Marziyeh Amirizadeh (with John Perry)

What is it about?

Captive in Iran is an inspiring and incredibly insightful autobiography from two women who were unjustly arrested and held in prison in Tehran simply for following Jesus. Having been held in Evin Prison for nine months, Maryam and Marziyeh give an account of their experience, highlighting the injustice that they and many of their fellow prisoners experienced.

In narrating their own experience they tell the stories of many of their fellow prisoners, often exposing the religious, political and gender-based oppression that exists in Iran.

They bear witness to how, in some of the worst circumstances imaginable, God was at work, bringing more people to know him through their commitment to sharing their faith and the good news of Jesus Christ.

Evin prison, the dreaded hellhole of Tehran and symbol of radical Islamic oppression had become our church. And so we prayed on.

Captive in Iran, p.82
How this book challenged me

The main way I was challenged by this book was in seeing how Maryam and Marziyeh responded in the face of great fear. At the hands of the police, prison and judges in Iran they faced the threat of interrogation, humiliation, torture and execution, and yet they continued to proclaim Jesus. Although denouncing their faith could get them out of prison, they continue to share the good news of the Christian gospel with fellow prisoners, prison guards, and the very people who have the power to sentence them to death. They don’t deny feeling fear, they are human, and yet when they are overwhelmed by fear they choose not to act upon it.

Despite our earlier bravado, we were afraid. For all we knew this could be our last day on earth. We held hands and prayed to the Lord to calm our hearts. Our greatest fear was that we would break and say things outside of God’s will. We prayed for strength. We wanted our captives to see that we were confident and brave. If we are tortured, give us the power to stand fast.

Captive in Iran, p.46

It is not that they are unafraid. It is that even in the midst of their fear they continue to talk to anyone who wants to hear about Jesus. It is that even when their health is battered and beaten by prison conditions they continue to make an active effort to love and serve others well.

In the face of fear they hold on to what is most important: ‘We’re not afraid of death. What we’re afraid of is life without faith, life without our Saviour, Jesus Christ.’ Their perspective is eternal.

How this book inspired me

This book inspired me to see that, as a Christian, the real freedom that we have cannot be taken away from us. The persecution of Christians, particularly those who have converted from Islam, in Iran had already forced Maryam and Marziyeh to hold church services in their flat in secret; their freedom was already limited. When in prison, their freedom was almost entirely stripped away; they could see only a square of sky and their contact with the outside world was limited to a rare 15 minute phone call with their sisters. And yet, Maryam and Marziyeh were not afraid to have these freedoms taken away, so long as they had the true freedom found in Christ, the freedom to be accepted and made righteous by the Creator and Saviour. Marziyeh writes boldly:

I have lived with God for many years, during some lonely and difficult times. He is the only support I have. He is my ally. 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 even 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.

Captive in Iran, p.220
How this book pointed me to God

One of the prevailing points made by this book is that God’s power to spread the gospel is not affected by human circumstances. A number of times, Maryam and Marziyeh reflect on how there were so many more opportunities to share their faith within the walls of Evin prison than there were in the ‘freedom’ of the outside world. Instead of silencing them, their arrest enabled them to share the good news of Jesus Christ all the more boldly than before.

What looked like failure by worldly standards was a great victory for Christ: His message proclaimed under the very noses of a regime desperate to stop it.

Captive in Iran, p.184

Maryam and Marziyeh trust that God is in control even when it doesn’t look that way. We see this all the more profoundly when they are faced with what can appear only to be tragedy. Their experience of prison was by no means an easy one; whilst they were able to form deep friendships with their fellow prisoners, on a number of occasions they experienced the great injustice, loss and grief of these very friends being executed at the hands of the Iranian law enforcement. They cry out to God:

Why God? Why is there so much injustice in the world? How can you keep silent in the face of such evil as this? How many more brave young girls must die at the hands of this cruel, evil, cowardly regime? The Lord sees the evil that people do to one another, and it makes him sad. Sometimes, from our lowly, earthly perspective, it’s impossible to see all of God’s perfect plan. But He loves Shirin and suffered the same, and worse, to bring her forgiveness.

Captive in Iran, p.284

Maryam and Marziyeh don’t ignore the suffering or the profound questions or doubts that arise from such suffering. They face these questions, and their faith and trust in God grows as they do so.

How this book called me to action

This book shines a light into the darkness of oppression and religious persecution that exists throughout the world. Its not the kind of book you put down and forget about, it is the kind of book that calls you to action. Marziyeh and Maryam were rightfully outraged at the injustice they saw:

It was the first execution of someone we knew. There are now words to describe the pain and sorrow we felt. This was an act of injustice and evil beyond the power of expression. She had been a prisoner for years in a marriage that was a nightmare of abuse, forced to remain there by a law that holds a man’s sexual pleasure above the most basic rights of human decency and dignity for women… She killed her husband because he attacked her an she feared for her life. There was no investigation… no consideration of the horrific circumstances that caused her to commit a crime accidentally and in self defence. Her husband wasn’t murdered, she was. Her story, so poignant and sobering, is a symbol of the lives that millions of women experience under the oppressive government in Iran.

Captive in Iran, p.135-136

The injustice exposed in this book is not something that we can ignore. As we hear of innocent people imprisoned and even executed without trial or reason, and of women oppressed, exploited and deprived of their voice and freedom, I see a call to political action, a call to spread the word, to join campaigns, to sign petitions, to make any contribution we can.

Amnesty International campaigned for the release of Marziyeh and Maryam, and continues to campaign for the freedom of many women who have been imprisoned in Evin, and now face the awful conditions of the prison alongside the threat of coronavirus, which, with the lack of hygiene and with far too many prisoners confined to each room, would flourish the moment it passed the prison gates. Here are a couple of many petitions for the freedom of women arrested unjustly in Iran (I am sure that there are more):

It is also important that we better understand the situations in different countries and the people of those nations before we make any judgements. I recently watched an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown documentary set in Iran (available on Netflix) and was challenged by how easy it is to forget that Iran is filled with many, many individuals, with rich lives, wonderful stories and cherished relationships.

Drawing attention to the experience of individuals, Marziyeh and Maryam reflect also on a deeper problem than the prison systems in Iran, they state boldly that:

prisoners are not the only ones who are captive in Iran. Everyone who lives under this repressive regime is – and will remain – a spiritual captive as long as these leaders maintain their iron grip.

Captive in Iran, p.218

We may feel powerless to achieve anything in the face such power. But as Christians, we know that we have a God who’s power far exceeds theirs. Is we lament the injustice, we can call out to God and ask him to bring freedom, for those physically held captive, and for those entrapped by a controlling regime. And he will hear our prayers.

Our hope for the future is in the Lord and His mercy for our suffering and persecuted people. This unjust and cruel regime cannot last forever. The day will come when God will cause this country to rise from the ashes… We pray that the Lord will use the two of us as part of His plan to fulfil this dream.

Captive in Iran, p.286

It may be hard to see how God is in control in such situations as these. But Maryam and Marziyeh close their book by bringing our attention back to the bigger picture, to the One who is in control. They call us to trust in God’s great plan, knowing that one day, he will bring true and total freedom, when he restores this world in the new creation.