Iranian pastor in prison needs help of White House, panel told
Naghmeh Abedini has told members of Congress she is disheartened the Obama administration is not helping her husband, an American citizen who is being persecuted and tortured in an Iranian prison for his Christian faith.
Testifying March 15 on Capitol Hill, Abedini said, “I must say I am disappointed with our government. I am disappointed that our president and our State Department have not fully engaged in this case. … I expect more from our government.
“[W]e should know as American citizens that our government will stand up to protect our beliefs, our fundamental human rights,” she said.
Her husband, Saeed Abedini, has reported that Iranian authorities at the notorious Evin prison in Tehran are torturing him and pressuring him to deny Christ. Iranian officials arrested and imprisoned him last year, and a court sentenced him in January to eight years in prison for endangering Iran’s “national security” by planting house churches a decade ago in the Middle Eastern country. A father of two, Abedini, 32, is an ordained minister of Iranian descent who became a United States citizen in 2010.
Naghmeh Abedini joined others in testifying before members of the House of Representative’s Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission about the eroding conditions for religious minorities in Iran, which is ruled by an extremist Islamic regime. Though invited, no representative of the State Department appeared at the hearing.
Others at the hearing criticized the Obama administration more strongly than did Naghmeh Abedini.
“The problem is that the State Department is AWOL,” said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which is representing Abedini’s family. “They act as if they are embarrassed about Mr. Abedini’s faith.”
“[W]hat our State Department is doing is abysmal,” said Sekulow, who said its actions show a “stunning lack of concern for protecting human rights and religious freedom.”
Rep. Trent Franks, R.-Ariz., a commission member, said the State Department “should be utterly ashamed for their failure to speak out” in behalf of Abedini and his family. He described the department’s response as a “deafening and almost cowardly silence.”
The March 15 hearing apparently prompted some action by the State Department. Later in the day, Naghmeh Abedini, Sekulow and ACLJ Executive Director Jordan Sekulow met with several State Department staff members.
“In that meeting, [Abedini and the Sekulows] made the case that they presented at the hearing today: the State Department needs to fully engage — Secretary [of State John] Kerry needs to become personally involved — to speak out and stand up for Pastor Saeed Abedini — a U.S. citizen — who is facing life-threatening treatment in an Iranian prison simply because of his Christian faith,” ACLJ spokesman Gene Kapp said in a written statement.
A State Department spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, said at a March 15 briefing Abedini is “unjustly imprisoned and ought to be released.”
More than 80 congressional members from both political parties wrote Kerry in mid-February to ask him to take action to gain Abedini’s release.
The separation from their father has been difficult for the children, Naghmeh Abedini told House members March 15. Before he was imprisoned, her husband was able to speak by means of the Internet to his children during his two-month house arrest, she said. That ended when he entered prison in September. The children questioned why their father would no longer speak to them, she recalled.
“I had to tell them that he was in prison because he loves Jesus and that he loved them very much and he was looking for the day to come back and tuck them into bed,” she said, her voice breaking with emotion.
After they were married in 2004, the Abedinis — both Muslim converts to faith in Christ — witnessed the Christian conversion of thousands and the growth of the Iranian house church movement in which they were involved, she told the commission.
They left the country in 2005 after the persecution of Christians mounted following the presidential election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, she testified. Saeed Abedini returned to Iran more than 10 times from 2009 to 2012 in an effort to build a government-approved orphanage. Members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard arrested him in July, when he was visiting the country in an effort to finish the orphanage, said Naghmeh Abedini, who traveled from Idaho to testify.
The treatment of Saeed Abedini is part of an increasing pattern of persecution for adherents of any faith other than Shia Islam, according to testimony at the hearing.
The most persecuted religious minorities are Baha’is and Christians, especially evangelicals and other Protestants, said Katrina Lantos Swett, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.