By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)– Iran has acquitted “on all charges” two young women who were detained fourteen months ago “for their Christian faith and activities” and abandoning Islam, Iranian church officials confirmed Sunday, May 23.
However Maryam Rostampour, 28, and Marzieh Amirizadeh, 31, have left Iran after being warned by judicial authorities “that any future Christian activity in Iran will be seriously dealt with,” added well-informed Elam Ministries, a group of Iranian church leaders that supports the nation’s “growing church.”
The name of the country where the women arrived Saturday, May 22, was not immediately released — apparently for security reasons — but Elam Ministries has its headquarters in Britain.
In a short statement obtained by BosNewsLife, Rostampour and Amirizadeh said they were thanking Christians who prayed for them. “We are most grateful to everyone who prayed for us,” Amirizadeh said. “I have no doubt that God heard the prayers of His people,” Rostampour added. “I believe our arrest, imprisonment and subsequent release were in the timing and plan of God, and it was all for His glory. But the prayers of people encouraged and sustained us throughout this ordeal.”
The two women were met at the undisclosed airport by Sam and Lin Yeghnazar, founders of Elam Ministries, during a reportedly tearful reunion. “It was very emotional when we first saw them,” said Lin Yeghnazar. “Now, we want to see them rest and recover.”
Elam Ministries said both young women “have shown exceptional courage, daring to tell an Islamic judge that they would never deny their faith in Christ”, despite their Muslim background.
When Sam Yeghnazar told them “their example had encouraged countless people around the world,” they reportedly said “We are frail human beings with many weaknesses. The honor and glory go to God who has kept and used us, although we don’t know why He has chosen us. All the glory goes to Him.”
Rostampour and Amirizadeh were detained in March 2009 on charges that included “apostasy”, “propagation of the Christian faith” and “engaging in anti-government activities” after authorities raided their home and confiscated Christian materials from them.
The women, who reportedly evangelized and handed out Bibles, were repeatedly placed “under great pressure” to recant their faith in Jesus Christ, Elam Ministries and other Christians familiar with the case said.
Both women, who are of a Muslim background but converted to Christianity, faced long prison terms and possible the death sentence. Apostasy along with murder, adultery, rape, armed robbery, and drug trafficking are all punishable by death in Iran, and it has executed people on these charges in the past.
“They faced repeated interrogations, weeks in solitary confinement, and unhealthy prison conditions. Both became seriously sick during their imprisonment and did not receive the treatment they needed which greatly increased their suffering. Senior judges and officials also intimidated them,” Elam Ministries told BosNewsLife.
However the Christians said in a statement they wanted to “remain faithful to Jesus Christ and did not want to deny Him.”
After their conditional release in November 2009 following 259 days in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, they have had “a very trying six months” waiting for their case to be heard in an Islamic court where they could have been sentenced to prison again, fellow Christians said.
However “We have seen the Lord do miracles over and over again. He kept us and gave us favor in prison, and sustained us during a very difficult period of waiting for our final trial,” explained Marzieh Amirizadeh in comments obtained by BosNewsLife.
The women admitted that the days ahead are not certain. But, “We hope to eventually share some of what the Lord allowed us to go through to highlight the need and the opportunity for the church in Iran, but right now we will take time to pray and seek the Lord for His will.”
Sam Yeghnazar said the women and his organization were thankful that “believers around the world interceded so faithfully for Maryam and Marzieh and the church in Iran.”
Besides Amirizadeh and Rustampoor, at least dozens of Christians, many of them former Muslims, were detained in recent months, some being held for weeks in solitary confinement, several Christian sources said.
At least eight prominent Christians were killed since 1979, according to Elam Ministries estimates.
Elam Ministries has linked the crackdown to concern among Iran’s leaders about the spread of Christianity in the strict Islamic nation. “Because Iran is a strategic gateway nation, the growing church in Iran will impact Muslim nations across the Islamic world.”
The group said in 1979, there were less than 500 known Christians from a Muslim background in Iran.
“Today the most conservative estimate is that there are at least 100,000 believers in the nation.”
Church leaders have reportedly said that they believe “millions” can be added “to the church in the next few years-such is the spiritual hunger that exists and the disillusionment with the Islamic regime.”