Maryam Naghash Zargaran is a Christian convert imprisoned in Iran. Her crime was to establish “house” churches, which are part of a growing movement in Iran. Iranians — many of them presumably converts from Islam – are studying Christianity and worshipping in private homes.
While Iran has an officially recognized Armenian Christian minority that is allowed to operate churches and participate to a limited extent in parliament, Muslim Iranians can face considerable risks if they convert to another religion. Although the Iranian criminal code does not specifically penalize apostasy, judges can draw on Islamic law, which allows for the death penalty for conversion.
Zargaran does not face the death penalty, but Iranian authorities have treated her as a national security threat. In 2012, she was arrested on charges of “propaganda against the regime” and “activities against national security.” Judge Mohammad Moghiseh of the Tehran Revolutionary Court sentenced her to four years in prison. She has since lost an appeal. She has been held in Evin Prison’s ward for women since July 15, 2013.
While no one has threatened to execute Zargaran, she does have a history of heart problems and is now in critical condition at Tehran’s Evin Prison. Zargaran suffers from a congenital heart problem called Atrial Septal Defect, for which she received an operation nine years ago. On May 26, she began a hunger strike to protest officials’ failure to provide her with further medical treatment. On May 29, officials allowed her to be taken to hospital, but she returned to prison the same day without receiving treatment.
Now, some of Zargaran’s fellow inmates are speaking up for her, and news of her struggle has spread beyond Evin. Recently, three prisoners at Rajai Shahr Prison west of Tehran began their own hunger strike to support her.
Zargaran’s cellmates tell IranWire that even before she began her hunger strike, Zargaran looked unwell. “Over the past few months, she has lost close to 26 kilos,” says N.H., a prisoner of conscience at Evin. “As a result of the intense pressure she faces during interrogations and in prison, she suffers from depression and anxiety. She cannot get to sleep most nights. But despite these conditions, she never stops sympathizing with her cellmates or helping them. Maryam is a very kind, caring, and gentle person.”
According to another inmate, Zargaran’s troubles began when the Security Police of Vozara district contacted her and told her that she must “present herself to explain certain things.” She had no inkling that she was going to be arrested. “She thought it was going to be a simple interrogation after which she would return home. She made no preparations,” the inmate says. Authorities kept Zargaran at a temporary detention center for three days. The place lacked medical facilities and detainees lived under terrible conditions. She was later transferred to Evin Prison.
A Show of Solidarity
Zargaran’s situation is now dire. “Only three days after Maryam started her hunger strike, her condition deteriorated,” the inmate says. “Her blood pressure was fluctuating and she had difficulty breathing. Her only demand was to receive medical leave according to the law so that she could get treatment. We were all worried about her. On Sunday, [May 29], when the loudspeaker announced that she had visitors, she refused to leave her bunk to meet her family. We decided to do the same and refused to meet with our families. During all this time, we had witnessed the physical and psychological pressure Maryam faced, and we wanted to show our solidarity.”
Prison officials, the inmate says, do not recognize how severely Zargaran suffers under the pressures of prison life. “At nights, she is woken up again and again by pain. Recently, she has been suffering from pain in her ears. Even the doctor of the prison’s clinic confirmed that her middle ear has been damaged. This is a sensitive young woman who used to teach music to children.”
Zargaran is represented by a court-appointed lawyer. According to Iranian law, she can ask for a temporary leave of absence or release after she has completed a third of her sentence, but a judge must approve such a request. In the meantime, Zargaran’s fellow prisoners are hoping that, by showing solidarity with her, they will convince judicial authorities to allow her to receive treatment.
They fear the stress of her situation might but worsen her condition or even cause her death.
Iranian Prisons as Interfaith Centers
Iran officially recognizes three religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism. While members of those faiths do not enjoy the same rights as Shia Muslims, their traditional adherents are officially tolerated and allowed to worship. But unrecognized religious groups, such as the Baha’i community and former Muslims who have chosen another faith, often face persecution. And Iranians who convert to Christianity often have little option but to stay in Iran. Those who have tried to claim asylum abroad have often been treated with skepticism and even faced arbitrary religious tests from immigration officials.
Anyone in Iran who is perceived to challenge Iran’s official Shia Muslim identity risks being treated as a national security threat. But by imprisoning religious dissenters along with political prisoners, Iranian authorities have produced an unintended consequence: They have turned prisons into interfaith centers. This, in turn, is slowly changing society. Last month, Faezeh Hashemi, daughter of former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, caused a political storm by appearing in a photo with Fariba Kamalabadi, a Baha’i community leader. On the situation of Baha’is in Iran, she told IranWire, “Unfortunately certain sections of our society are denied basic rights. This is not acceptable — and Islam does not accept this discrimination either.” Hashemi first met Kamalabadi when she was in prison for protesting the results of Iran’s 2009 election.