Iranian Christian Marzi Amirizadeh: From death row to Shabbat table

Through getting to know her, I also got to know much of the back story that’s not in the book, the person behind the book who exhibited tremendous faith and courage standing up to the Islamic regime.

 MARZI AMIRIZADEH is interviewed by Joel Rosenberg for TBN’s ‘Rosenberg Report.’ (photo credit: Marzi Amirizadeh)
MARZI AMIRIZADEH is interviewed by Joel Rosenberg for TBN’s ‘Rosenberg Report.’
(photo credit: Marzi Amirizadeh)

It’s not every day that you get to meet a new friend who is an Iranian dissident, much less an Iranian dissident who was sentenced to death by hanging, and lived to tell about it. But this month, that’s what I was privileged to do, spending considerable time with Marziyeh “Marzi” Amirizadeh, who had arrived in Israel on her first visit.

Marzi was sentenced to death in Iran for converting to Christianity, a “crime” the Iranians call apostasy. Her books Captive in Iran and Love Journey with God are well worth reading and recount many of the details. Through getting to know her, I also got to know much of the back story that’s not in the book, the person behind the book who exhibited tremendous faith and courage standing up to the Islamic regime.

“Israel is precious to me as a Christian because Jesus was a Jew, and this is the land of the prophets and the Bible.”

Marziyeh “Marzi” Amirizadeh

Coming to Israel for the first time is significant for Jews and Christians uniquely. Marzi considers Israel her spiritual homeland. “Israel is precious to me as a Christian because Jesus was a Jew, and this is the land of the prophets and the Bible,” she says. “God loves Israel and the Jewish people, and I love Israel because God loves Israel.” For Marzi, it was a trip she had dreamed about for years – a pilgrimage and spiritual homecoming.

An unlikely hero, dissident against the Iranian regime

Marzi is an unlikely hero, and she bristles at the suggestion that she is one. She was born the same year as the Iranian revolution. She grew up in a home with a library of books and magazines that predated the revolution, whose mere possession risked criminal punishment. But these offered a glimpse of life outside the Islamic Republic and what life was like in the country of her birth, before her birth.

But Marzi also grew up as a second-class citizen. As a young girl, she remembers her brothers trying to dominate her life, especially when their father was away, and later incapacitated. Iranian Sharia law delegates women subservient to their fathers, brothers and husbands. Girls are raised with that reality; boys are raised, and empowered, that it is the norm.

 CONTEMPLATING THE enormity of the murder of six million Jews at Yad Vashem. (credit: Jonathan Feldstein) CONTEMPLATING THE enormity of the murder of six million Jews at Yad Vashem. (credit: Jonathan Feldstein)

This did not suit her. She’s bright, inquisitive, and one to challenge something that is unjust or even doesn’t make sense. She was the best student in her class, and she challenged many strict Iranian Islamic rules. She’d ask why Islamic prayers were only in Arabic, a language that she did not speak, as if God did not understand other languages. Something as simple as riding a bike became a challenge to Iran’s strict religious restrictions.

Marzi began searching for the truth after realizing that the Iranian brand of Islam that was forced upon her, and her society, was not only oppressive but riddled with lies, even evil.

Ultimately, Marzi turned to the Christian faith. Doing so in Iran is dangerous enough. Christians are considered filthy infidels. But she was not content to live that secretly.

Like many Christians, Marzi shares her faith freely and openly. She did as well at my Shabbat table, not to evangelize but just because that is who she is. Her faith became her rudder, steering her through challenging and even terrible times. It is inseparable from her identity, what happened to her, who she became, and her love for Israel.

Becoming a Christian gave her a personal relationship with a God who was good and loving, the polar opposite of the unapproachable god of fear and punishment imposed by the mullahs in the land of her birth. Realizing the lies of the regime, Marzi worked to share the truth about the regime and the inspiration of her faith. Part of this involved covertly placing 20,000 New Testaments in mailboxes throughout Tehran and in mosques, even in Iran’s holy city, Qom.

She tells stories of being in the right place at the right time, more than a few times, when someone was searching for the truth, and she was divinely planted to be God’s emissary in a land of evil. Years after leaving Iran, she met another Iranian family who had also become Christian, thanks to being the recipients of Marzi leaving a New Testament in their mailbox.

Marzi’s undercover activities remained undercover. She was never caught and, until she left Iran, these remained secret. She was arrested in 2009, however, for apostasy – converting from Islam to Christianity. She never denied her faith, not to her captors, interrogators, nor even to her judge. 

But she denied being an apostate. She told her judge that Islam is something forced on Iranians and is not a choice, and that she was not an apostate since she never was a Muslim, she didn’t convert from Islam. This earned her the judge’s ire, and he vowed to sentence her to be hanged. So much for a fair trial.

LISTENING TO Marzi, I was brought back to my own youth advocating for Jewish prisoners in the Soviet Union. We understood then that public pressure, specifically on behalf of Prisoners of Zion, was essential to prevent worse things from happening to them. In many cases, when the pressure on the Soviets through these activities became an embarrassment that they didn’t want to deal with, the Soviets would free prominent refuseniks and prisoners.

Because of quick thinking immediately after her 2009 arrest, Marzi’s case became public, first within her church community in Iran, and then internationally. Because of international advocacy and pressure, Marzi is convinced that as badly as she was treated, she wasn’t treated worse. Ultimately, this led to her being freed in a way that the Iranians could claim that she fled rather than carrying out her sentence of death by hanging.

However, despite not being physically tortured in ways that left physical bruises, or raped, as is common, she suffered no shortage of mental torture while at the notorious Evin prison. She recounts being locked into an underground cell with no light or air, having to sleep on a bare concrete floor with only a urine-soaked blanket, and knowing that her closest friends in prison were being tortured and executed as a way to threaten her. Marzi pauses, unable to speak, as tears roll down her cheeks while sharing her stories and reliving the horrors.

While on an innocuous tour of the Christian Quarter, a pillar of any first-time Christian visitor’s tour of Jerusalem, Marzi found herself suffering a PTSD incident, which she had never experienced before. It occurred while she was in a dungeon-like structure under the Church of the Holy Sepulcher

When she related this at my Shabbat table, she did so with her characteristic nonchalant irony. This was the first time since her imprisonment in Iran that she had been in a place that was nearly identical to her cell in Tehran. Her friend Melissa, who knows her well, related that she saw Marzi’s demeanor change, her breathing quickening. Marzi realized it, too. The anxiety of being in a place that so similarly resembled the cell where she was held, even while free and in Jerusalem, caused her tremendous trauma.

MARZI HAD dreamed about coming to Israel for some time. As a Christian, Israel is significant to her in many ways. In every way, it was a spiritual pilgrimage. As the land where Jesus and the prophets lived, it was exhilarating. She felt at home immediately. Days before her departure for the Holy Land from her home in Atlanta, Georgia, she wept in anticipation. Israel made her feel alive.

On our first day together, traveling to an I24 News interview, Marzi joked about being arrested again and, if that were to happen, now she would surely be tried as an Israeli spy. The irony of this was twofold, since the Iranians would surely do it, but as a woman born in Iran, even with her US passport, her arrival raised eyebrows.

Like any traveler to Israel, especially flying on El Al, Marzi was questioned at length before her flight, and upon arrival. In the same way she joked about being arrested and tried as a spy, with a hint of irony based in reality, she relates how upon arrival she was asked to go to a room off the passport control area. A uniformed woman asked if she had ever been back to Iran since she left, obviously looking for someone with ill intent. Marzi simply stated that she had been tried and sentenced to death by hanging, and that it would not be safe for her to go back.

Immediately after leaving the airport, Marzi went to the Western Wall. “It was hard to believe I was actually in Jerusalem. I was so tired, but it was so exciting. I just started praying.

“There’s a very good spirit you can feel when surrounded by people who are also praying with pure intentions. I felt God’s presence deeply. The country, people and the history are precious to me.”

Shabbat was also a powerful experience. It was her first time observing Shabbat and the significance of the day of rest. I didn’t know it at the time, but her first Shabbat meal was at my home. “I had never been in a situation where a family gathers together, eats together, prays together and is committed to that every week. It’s honorable as a family and to God.”

She noted that sometimes there is no rest in the hectic pace of life, like being a machine, and people wear themselves down. She was impressed seeing everything closed. She was impressed when, on Shabbat morning, she went to the café that she often frequented, only to see that it was closed. “Seeing the whole country and people resting was inspiring.”

Later that day, she went to Bloomfield Park overlooking the Old City, where she sat by herself, prayed and enjoyed the serenity. As she sat, two Jewish women approached and got to know her. They explained Shabbat and prayed for her, reading Psalm 20. Marzi was touched that one of the women cried.

Her last day in Israel was on Holocaust Remembrance Day. She wept visiting Yad Vashem, trying to comprehend the murder of six million Jews, the evil and brainwashing that was behind it, and why more Christians didn’t protect the Jews. Throughout the memorial, Marzi looked into the eyes of countless pictures of Jews who were murdered, and she wept. 

She was confronted with a reality about her own faith that she never knew: Not only did people who called themselves Christians conceive and implement the Final Solution, but tens of millions stood idly by, allowing the Jews to be massacred, and even participating in the atrocities. Coming to faith in Iran, she had no idea of the church’s history of persecuting Jews. This caused her tremendous distress, adding to the incomprehensible persecution and mass murder of the Jews.

Marzi’s visit also included Passover, which she got to celebrate, learning more things about the Jewish foundation of her own faith, and wondering why more Christians don’t know about Jewish tradition. She wept over the terrorist execution of Lucy, Maia and Rina Dee, murdered and buried while she was visiting. Driving by the scene of a terrorist stabbing attack in Gush Etzion, she grappled aloud about how and why it is that the Jews, God’s chosen people, are endlessly attacked.

Her whole visit to Israel left Marzi feeling deeply connected to the people and the culture.

AS MUCH as Marzi wanted to come to Israel to be uplifted spiritually, from the outset she was determined to share her story and let Israelis know that they and the Iranian people have the same enemy – the Iranian regime. She brought this message to average Israelis and government leaders through several media appearances and interviews. She says most Iranians do not hate Israel, and she wants to be a catalyst to restore the warm relations that used to exist between Israel and Iran. She believes that day is coming.

Marzi is sure that the Islamic regime is on its last legs, pointing out that the protests in Iran – spearheaded by women resisting Iran’s morality police, who keep women and girls subjugated – have continued since the killing of Mahsa Amini last September. In fact, the protests widened, indicating that Iranians are no longer willing to live under the evil of the Islamic regime. Marzi is convinced of that and is praying that sooner than later Iranians will take back their country.

If she could, Marzi would be in the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities, joining the protests and rescuing Iran from the evil regime that has controlled the country of her birth, since her birth. Her belief in and advocating for women in Iran is not new. With the Islamic practice of “legalizing” prostitution through a system of temporary wives, Marzi took on this pillar of immorality while in Iran, helping women realize not only that they were being used but in a way that was morally wrong.

What does Marzi want to tell Iranians about Israel? “I want them to know the truth. Most Iranians don’t hate Israel; they just don’t know the reality.” More and more Iranians are realizing that Israel is not their enemy but the Iranian regime is. We have that in common. She wants all Iranians to know that.

Marzi emphasizes the shared values, culture and even history, going back to Persian rulers Cyrus and Darius. “These Persian leaders helped return the Jews to Israel to rebuild the country and Jewish honor. They understood that the Jewish people were chosen by God. 

“Most Iranians don’t know the history, about Esther and Mordechai and their tombs in Iran. It will take some work to undo the evil brainwashing by the regime,” she says. But she sees that happening and wants to be a positive voice and a part of making that happen.

Her story is not particularly Jewish, and she shares more on the Inspiration from Zion podcast conversation. But she is deeply connected to Israel and the Jewish people. With her trip that included the Passover holiday, when we celebrate our liberation from slavery in Egypt, it is particularly poignant to share her story. Because freedom is not free; it comes with a price, and sometimes torture and threats of death. 

To hear more from Marzi, check out the Inspiration from Zion Podcast:

The writer is president of the Genesis 123 Foundation and, building bridges between Jews and Christians.