U.S. Government and Churches Must Intervene for Pastor Saeed Abedini

American citizen sentenced to eight years in notorious Iranian prison.

The good news is that Pastor Saeed Abedini, an American citizen arrested on a visit back to Iran, did not get the death sentence. That was a real possibility. The Iranian Revolutionary Court Judge presiding over the 32 year-old husband and father of two’s case, Judge Abbas Pir-Abassi, is known internationally as one of Iran’s “hanging judges” because he has sent so many to the gallows, according to the American Center for Law and Justice’s (ACLJ) Jordan Sekulow. And the Islamic Republic of Iran has a long history of arresting, torturing, and killing Christians, as well as Baha’is, human rights activists, and others.

No, instead Judge Pir-Abassi verbally convicted and sentenced Abedini to eight years in prison for “threatening national security.” But actually, since the pastor is to serve his sentence at the notoriously brutal Evin Prison in Tehran where he has already been beaten and tortured on a regular basis since his arrest on September 26, 2012, there is no good news. Lisa Daftari for Fox News says that Abedini has been beaten by both prison guards and by other prisoners “who self-identify as members of Al Qaeda.” Family and other advocates fear that Abedini may not survive eight years of such treatment. Sekulow notes that although Iranian law requires a written verdict, there has only been Pir-Abassi’s verbal sentence. But Iran is not really known for legal integrity and consistency.

Abedini left Iran in 2005, but he left Islam years before that. He became a Christian at age 20, after his search to be a more devout Muslim – including being recruited out of high school by radical Islamists for suicide bomber training – left him in despair. Not long after his conversion, Abedini became a leader to particular group of Iranian Christians who, like he, were converts from Islam. Daftari says that Abedini was a “Christian leader and community organizer developing Iran's underground home church communities for Christian converts.” He built a network of 100 such underground churches in 30 cities in Iran, and married Naghmeh in 2004. Naghmeh Abedini had left Iran with her family when she was nine years old, and met Abedini on a return visit.

Pastor Abedini loves the United States. He loves the freedom of religion and he and Naghmeh have chosen to raise their son and daughter here. He loves his church community in Idaho, which has committed to prayer and action on his behalf. And it would be a good guess from most of the photos we see of the Abedinis and their children that he likes Disneyworld quite a bit, too! But he also loves Iran, and he and his wife had previously returned for a visit in 2009. On that trip, Abedini was arrested when he arrived at the airport to fly back to the United States. Mrs. Abedini told the Daily Mail that Iranian authorities first threatened Abedini with death for apostasy from Islam. And Daftari reports that they released him “after he signed a written agreement in which the government would not charge him for his Christian activities, and he would be allowed to enter and exit the country so long as he ceased all official house church activities.

It was for such secular humanitarian efforts that Abedini was in Iran. In addition to visiting family, he was overseeing the construction of a non-sectarian orphanage on property belonging to his family in Rasht. Mrs. Abedini indicated that it was the ninth time he had been to Iran since the 2009 visit. But sadly, although Abedini kept to his agreement, the Iranian government did not keep to theirs. Sekulow reports that the evidence used by Judge Pir-Abassi for his sentence of threatening national security “was of Pastor Saeed’s Christian activities primarily during the early 2000s, when under President Khatami house churches were not perceived as a threat to Iran.”

Since Abedini’s arrest, his wife and friends have been working to bring international attention and pressure to his case. On September 8, 2012, less than three weeks before they arrested Abedini, the Iranian authorities acquitted and freed Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani after almost three years’ imprisonment. Nadarkhani’s advocates, including the ACLJ and Christian church and human rights groups, are convinced that Iran responded to the huge outcry on the pastor’s behalf.

Yet even while Iran is sensitive to pressure, the Islamists continue to play cat-and-mouse games, arresting one while releasing another, calling Nadarkhani back to prison on Christmas Day – then releasing him again, and, of course, doing little to nothing for those Christian prisoners who are not as well-known to the media and the West. For instance, on Christmas 2012, Iranian authorities arrested some 50 Christians, including Reverend Vruir Avanessian, 60, an officially ordained pastor of Armenian descent. Another pastor, Benham Irani from Karaj, has been in prison since May 2011. According to Present Truth Ministries and others who have contact on the ground in Iran, Irani is very ill. He has been suffering from intestinal bleeding for over a year. Most of his health problems have been caused by the brutal beatings he has received from other prisoners and from prison guards and from being denied medical care.

A concerted effort for all of Iran’s unjustly imprisoned and persecuted believers is needed by the international community and particularly by the United States government and U.S. churches. The ACLJ has closely monitored and reported on the Obama Administration’s somewhat lackluster advocacy on behalf of Abedini. They were pleased to receive a report of “a clear and unequivocal call for Pastor Saeed’s release” issued by Secretary of State Nominee Senator John Kerry after he was challenged to such by Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL). Rubio and 11 other senators sent a bi-partisan letter on January 15 to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, urging her “swift engagement with international community to advocate for [Abedini’s] release.” Thirty –seven House members sent a similar letter the same day.

In his response to Rubio, Kerry said:

The U.S. government remains concerned about U.S. citizen Saeed Abedini, who is detained in Iran on a charge related to his religious beliefs. Mr. Abedini's attorney had only one day on January 21, 2013, to present his defense. We remain deeply concerned about the fairness and transparency of Mr. Abedini's trial. I, along with the U.S. government, condemn Iran's continued violation of the universal right of freedom of religion and call on the Iranian authorities to respect Mr. Abedini's human rights and release him. The Department of State is in close contact with the Abedini family and is actively engaged on this case.

Other U.S. government officials have responded, as well. Some members of Congress have issued individual statements, as has the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, the White House, and the State Department. The National Security Council has also weighed in.

David French at ACLJ comments, “While these words are welcome, neither the White House nor State Department have engaged at the high level this case requires. As a former state department official noted today on Fox News (which has been invaluable in its relentless coverage of Saeed’s case), high-level engagement is critical.” He explains that only the highest-level engagement will convey “the right message” to the United Nations and the European Union.

French continued, “Let’s be clear, however, the international community will take its cues from America.  If our own government isn’t out front in supporting one of its own citizens, we cannot expect the UN and EU to lead.” But we must not forget that the international community and even the U.S. government will take its cues from the churches. If Christians in America and beyond don’t bother to support one of their own “citizens,” they cannot expect the secular world to take the lead. Thankfully, the ACLJ reports that almost 80,000 people have signed their international petition on behalf of Saeed Abedini. An additional petition, asking the Obama Administration and U.S. government to engagement has garnered almost 254,000 signatures. Christians are undoubtedly well represented among the signatories.

Some church leaders in the mainline church denominations are most probably underrepresented. They are not familiar with, or are horrified by the politically conservative ACLJ; they don’t believe that Muslims should leave their faith for Christianity; or they are loath to criticize the foreign policy of the Obama Administration.  For whatever reason, just as they failed to get involved in advocacy efforts for Youcef Nadarkhani, some mainline church leaders take less interest in the fate of Iranian Christians than they did in two American hikers who were arrested as spies in Iran in 2009 and imprisoned in Evin Prison. Episcopal Church bishop John Chane and Catholic bishop Theodore McCarrick, along with representatives of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) helped negotiate the release of hikers Bauer and Fattal on a trip to Iran in September 2011.

In contrast to some church leaders’ lack of interest, the leadership of the Anglican Church in North America is preparing a statement to go to all of the bishops, clergy, and Christians of the denomination, urging prayer and action on behalf of Abedini and all of Iran’s persecuted Christians. Individual church members in other denominations should urge their leaders to similar actions. Although citizens of all faiths and of no faith will also show their concern and work on behalf of the human rights of these persecuted Christians, and that effort is accepted with great gratitude and humility, Abedini’s fellow Christians have a special accountability to speak out on behalf of him and all of Iran’s persecuted believers.

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