By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent, BosNewsLife
TEHRAN, IRAN (BosNewsLife)– As the world focuses on the political turmoil in Iran, two detained Christian women are “in danger of being forgotten” amid concerns they may face execution, Iranian Christians said Tuesday, July 7.
Marzieh Amirizadeh, 30, and Maryam Rustampoor, 27, have been held for over four months in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison apparently for converting to Christianity from Islam.
Iranian Christians and rights investigators said the two young women, who were arrested March 5, suffered sleep deprivation as part of police interrogations and were held in solitary confinement for three weeks in May and early June.
Later, they were put together in one small cell for about two weeks before being moved to a larger area to make place for other inmates, including many protesters who were detained following last month’s disputed presidential elections, said Christians with close knowledge about the situation.
About 600 women were reportedly brought to Evin prison during the protests.
There was still no clarity regarding the case of the two Christian women, Tuesday, July 7, with one judge reportedly telling them they were both to be executed as ‘apostates’. “Maryam and Marzieh have responded with courage, however, telling the judge to ‘expedite his sentence’,” said Pray for Iran, an Internet initiative of Iranian churches.
After international pressure, the Iranian Government’s Parliamentary Committee reportedly removed articles stipulating the death penalty for apostasy from the Islamic Penal Code Bill, but the changes have to be approved by legislators.
“Until the Islamic Penal Code Bill is finalized by the Iranian Parliament and Guardian Council, there is still a danger that the judicial committee’s revisions may not be taken into account,” explained Alexa Papadouris, Advocacy Director of Britain-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a religious rights group.
Apostasy along with murder, adultery, rape, armed robbery, and drug trafficking are all punishable by death in Iran, and last week Iranian media reported that at least six people were hanged for murder in the same prison where the two Christian women are held.
Yet, “Maryam and Marzieh have demonstrated great courage and trust in God.
They believe the promise of Jesus that they will be given the words to speak when they are taken before judges,” said Sam Yeghnazar, founder of Elam Ministries, an organization supporting te growing churches in Iran.
Elam Ministries said the outcome of the “political turmoil” in Iran “could crucially impact the level of suffering” of the two women and other Christians who were formerly Muslim.
Besides Amirizadeh and Rustampoor, over 50 Christians were arrested, some being held for weeks in solitary confinement, several Christian sources said.
At least eight prominent Christians were killed since 1979, Elam Ministries added.
“If the position of hard-liners is strengthened there is a real danger they could unleash more persecution against the church,” the group added.
Elam Ministries linked the attacks to concern among Iran’s leaders about the spread of Christianity in the 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.”
Iranian opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi vowed Monday, July 6, to continue his campaign against the re-election of the perceived hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
However Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has banned demonstrations and accused Western leaders for their alleged “meddling” in Iran’s internal affairs, threatening to respond with a “Iron fist.”
At least 20 protesters and eight members of the feared Basij militia have died in recent protests, officials said. They include Neda Agha Soltan, a 26-year-old woman who was shot and killed by a suspected militia sniper.
Pictures and video footage of Soltan, with blood pouring from her mouth and nose as a few Iranian men struggled to save her, have became a powerful symbol of the protests taking place over Iran’s disputed presidential election.
Authorities have reportedly forced her family to leave their Tehran home, and refused to return her body for a proper funeral.