I finished reading yet another book late last night; Captive in Iran. I realised that for the third time this month I had been challenged in an area of Christian life that is rarely spoken about in the West; the persecution of Christians. This was also the subject of the books Tortured for Christ and The Hidden Altar. I have been thinking about this subject as it is rarely the focus of our Sunday messages, most likely because we don't tend to suffer the same type of persecution that is highlighted in these books. But how would we respond as individuals if God allowed these situations into our lives or the lives of our families and friends?
"Captive in Iran" tells the story of Maryam Rostampour and Marziyeh Amirizadeh, two women born into Muslim families in Iran that converted to Christianity in their later teens. Both relay similar stories of dissatisfaction with Islam, a growing sense of emptiness and a sincere desire to know the truth about life, faith and God resulting in their eventual conversions. Although their sisters are mentioned frequently in the book, their parents are not. I'm guessing this was one of the consequences of their individual decisions to follow Christ. The two women, strangers at this stage but having had similar experiences already, met during a Theological Training course in Turkey with "Elam."
The organisation supplied them with a large quantity of New Testaments in the Farsi language. Bravely these women brought these to Iran, where it was and is illegal to "spread the Christian faith" (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christianity_in_Iran) especially amongst Muslims (the majority religion.) Over a 3 year period they covertly placed 20,000 of these Bibles in the hands of people they had conversations with in the street or in restaurants and left them in other public places. They each carried in their backpacks 10/15 Bibles for giving away whenever they went out. They marked the areas covered on a map which is featured in the book and shows extensive activity. They relay almost being stopped by security police at a checkpoint when they had 3000 Bibles in their vehicle but due to a commotion further up the line (and after desperate prayer) they passed right through. What these two women did is incredible and likely reached countless souls for Christ in a country where Christian Bibles are not easily accessible and the "gospel of Barnabas" (conforms to the Islamic interpretation of Christian origins and contradicts the New Testament teachings of Christianity,) creates confusion for many (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gospel_of_Barnabas.)
In the end, the inevitable happened and these two courageous women were arrested by the Iranian secret police. They were detained on charges that were never officially and clearly relayed to them in writing but the gist of it was two fold; promoting the Christian faith and apostasy (converting from Islam to Christianity which if proven carries the death penalty.) You might think the story would end at this point but the bulk of the book is about their evangelistic witness whilst in prison! Shortly after their detention, in terrible conditions that most of us would not even want to dream about, they came to believe that God brought them into prison for the purpose of reaching those within the walls.
"Though I had no way to give her a Bible, her request was another reminder of how easy it was to witness behind bars compared to the work we had done on the outside. Maryam and I didn't have to look for prospects or sneak New Testaments into their mailboxes. We could talk to them openly, rather than hiding behind closed doors or in basements. Our fellow prisoners were hungry for the truth. Desperate for it. The guilty ones felt the weight of sin for their crimes and believed Islam condemned them to punishment or death. They had lost all hope until they heard the good news of the true God. On the surface the prison environment seemed to be a dead end. At the same time, the truth of Jesus, His love for sinners, and His atonement for their sins, was a miracle to these inmates , a balm for even the oldest and most painful wounds in their souls. Most of these women had lost all hope of salvation....... And because we were already in prison for promoting Christianity, we figured we might as well shout the good news of Jesus Christ from the rafters."
During their 9 month detention, they actively shared with prisoners, guards, officials and even judges. They did this with few (if any) material resources and often whilst suffering from chronic illness due to the harsh conditions
"As I carried the box to the trash, I looked through it, just in case. Even trash might have some value in prison. To my surprise I found a pocket-size Gospel of Luke mixed in with the scraps and castoffs. "God has answered your prayers," I said, handing it over. "Now you can read a portion of the authentic Bible you've always wanted. As word got around, many, many prisoners wanted to read it. Before long, dozens of women had their first look at the true Christian Scriptures, reading the little volume signed by one of the most powerful men in the church (Archbishop Ramsey- Former Archbishop of Canterbury,) who had died more than twenty years before and whose little pocket Gospel had miraculously turned up under a bed in a women's prison in the middle of Islamic Iran."
Their case began to be highlighted internationally and people around the world campaigned for their release. This created an embarrassing situation for the Iranian authorities who needed the girls to apologise or at least to distance themselves from their bold statements about their faith in Jesus Christ as their personal Saviour and Lord. This from one such frustrated Judge during the proceedings;
"Of course, you are aware that I am allowed by our religious law to cut you in half with a sword right now," he fumed at them , his voice rising. Then he regained control of himself. "But I prefer to leave it to the law to decide."
I'm not going to spoil this very readable story by relaying any further detail here suffice to say that I would recommend this book for adults. It is clean in terms of language, except for one use of God's name in vain early on, there is some violence and sexual content but it is not in graphic detail.
I am reluctant to place a health warning here but it is necessary especially for less mature Christians who may be confused by some of the content. These women speak of charismatic type subjective experiences (tongues, prohecy, healing etc) that led to their conversion to Christianity. They mention dreams of Jesus and at times prophetic dreams leading them to confidently assert that several prisoners will be released within a certain time frame. Indeed a man involved in their eventual release states that Jesus appeared to him personally in a dream and "ordered" him to help them out of their situation. This man is described as a non-religious figure who "can connect to all the prophets." Later one of the women gets into an argument with an official figure about whether or not she has actually heard the audible voice of God. Although this is not a main theme in the book it could be dangerous for readers to place too much/any emphasis on these type of experiences especially as none of them seem to happen as a result of the Holy Spirit speaking through the Word of God. The Bible also makes it clear that there will be no new revelation as it is sufficient for all situations/circumstances here on earth.
Despite the health warning, I believe that this book, the others I have mentioned and others on the subject of the persecution of Christians in various parts of the world, written both contemporararily and historically should be examined and considered carefully by sincere Christians. When reading these books and others I have been greatly encouraged by those who took a stand for their faith, but this has also been mixed with a tinge of fear. Some of the experiences these writers have gone through are truly terrible in terms of living conditions, chronic illness, loss of liberty, physical punishment (even torture,) loss of family members and the list goes on. This not mentioning the emotional impact of all of these things over time.
What if God required this or something worse of you or me? Christians are keen to quote verses reminding us that God won't allow us more than we can bear but how much could we really handle? What about Paul and Job, what was their breaking point? Are we anywhere near our limits of endurance when facing the often trivial things that we moan and complain about every day? Have we truly counted the cost of following Jesus as these fellow believers did? Would we be able to maintain our behavioural witness whilst in prison and suffering for it? What if we were languishing there knowing that an apology and partial recantation would result in immediate release? What if our family members were not saved and were desperate for us to take this course? What if we were sentenced to die and only had to amend our public statement of faith slightly to avoid execution? Would we waver? How soon will it be before we are faced with these choices in the West? Are we prepared? Have we even thought about it?
Finally, What are we doing to help those persecuted Christians around the world in terms of prayer and financial support? Could we do more to help them? Are we called to go to these countries ourselves? Are we resisting that call due to fear?
"And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you" Luke 14 vs 27-29
"And He summoned the crowd with His disciples, and said to them, "If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me." Mark 8 vs 34
"So then, none of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions." Luke 14 vs 33
"But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ" Philippians 3 vs 7-8
"If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. Luke 14 vs 26
"Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted." 2 Timothy 3 vs 12
"Because lawlessness is increased, most people's love will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved." Matthew 24 vs 12-13