(CHANGING LEAD, ADDS BACKGROUND AND DETAILS)
By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)-- Iran on Wednesday, November 18, released two young women who faced execution or at least life imprisonment for converting to Christianity despite their Muslim background.
Marzieh Amirizadeh Esmaeilabad and Maryam Rustampoor were set free "after 259 days" from Tehran's notorious Evin prison at 15:30 pm local time Wednesday, November 18, confirmed a group of Iranian church leaders known as 'Elam Ministries'.
"Words are not enough to express our gratitude to the Lord and to His people who have prayed and worked for our release," the two women said in a prepared statement obtained by BosNewsLife.
Their release was first expected Monday or Tuesday. Iranian Christians cited "legal procedures" as the main reason for the delay.
Esmaeilabad, 30, and Rustampoor, 27, were freed without bail, but Elam Ministries cautioned that they "may yet have to face a court hearing and still need our prayers." Under Iran's strict interpretation of Islam, anyone converting to another religion could face the death penalty or at least life imprisonment.
It was unclear Wednesday, November 18, whether prosecutors would continue to demand harsh punishment for the two women.
Esmaeilabad and Rustampoor were detained March 5 when security forces raided their apartment, confiscating Christian literature, according to local Christians. "Though their health has suffered greatly while in prison, they are doing as well as could be expected and are rejoicing in the Lord’s faithfulness to them," Elam Ministries said.
On October 4, Maryam Rustampoor suffered severe food poisoning, but was given medical attention after much insistence, Christians said. Both women apparently lost weight because of a lack of nutrition and reportedly suffered from sore throats, stomach pain and headaches.
However both women refused to renounce their faith in Christ, despite their circumstances and pressure from authorities during apparently tough interrogations and court hearings, fellow believers said. "Maryam and Marzieh have greatly inspired us all. Their love for the Lord Jesus and their faithfulness to God has been an amazing testimony," explained Elam Ministries Director Sam Yeghnazar.
In August, the prosecution demanded that the women "renounce" their Christian faith "verbally and in written form," but they apparently refused saying: "We will not deny our faith [in Christ]," according to trial observers.
Prosecutors also wondered whether the two women were still real Christians as they had serious health problems because of poor prison conditions and mistreatment. "We love Jesus," and "Yes, we are Christians," they were overheard answering repeated questions.
Asked whether they "were Muslims and now have become Christians," the women reportedly replied: "We were born in Muslim families, but we were not Muslims." They also said they had "no regrets" about their Christian conversion despite their imprisonment, according to remarks obtained by BosNewsLife.
During one tense moment in the questioning the Christian women made reference to their belief that God had spoken to them through the "Holy Spirit", observers said.
After a deputy prosecutor reportedly told them "It is impossible for God to speak with humans," Esmaeilabad apparently replied: "Are you questioning whether God is Almighty?"
The prosecution was heard telling her that she is "not worthy for God" but Esmaeilabad countered: "'It is God, and not you, who determines if I am worthy." After they were told by a court to return to prison and think about their options, the two women were heard saying: "We have already done our thinking. If we come out of prison we want to do so with honor."
Wednesday's release of the Christian women came amid mounting international pressure on Iran to respect their beliefs. Their case has come to symbolize the pressure faced by former Muslims in the Islamic nation, where dozens of Christians are known to have been detained in recent months.
Elam Ministries Director Yeghnazar said in a statement that his organization had urged supporters to pray that the women's "health be fully restored" and for "their continued safety" and "full acquittal".