Congress joins calls to release Iranian pastor
NASHVILLE (BP) -- Calls are intensifying for the U.S. to pressure Iran to free pastor Saeed Abedini, a U.S. citizen of Iranian descent who is being tortured in an Iranian prison and persecuted for his Christian faith.
More than 80 U.S. Congress members from both parties signed a Feb. 12 letter urging Secretary of State John Kerry to "exhaust every possible option to secure Mr. Abedini's immediate release."
The letter joins an online petition by the American Center for Law and Justice urging President Obama, Kerry and Congress to "take all available diplomatic and legislative action to pressure Iran to respect religious freedom and release Pastor Saeed." The petition had nearly 260,000 signatures as of Feb. 15.
"We know that international pressure works," ACLJ Executive Director Jordan Sekulow and Matthew Clark, an ACLJ attorney, wrote on the group's website. "We saw that with the case of Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, who was released for a second time earlier this year after being sentenced to execution for apostasy (converting to Christianity). His freedom is the direct result of immense international pressure."
The ACLJ's European arm has called on the United Nations Human Rights Council to intervene. The nonprofit ACLJ is representing Abedini's family in the U.S., where his wife Naghmeh and mother of their two sons has expressed fears that she might not hear from Abedini for eight years, the length of his current sentence. Abedini has been held since September 2012 in the notorious Evin Prison in Tehran, where he is reportedly being tortured, beaten and psychologically abused.
In a closed trial, at times without Abedini or his attorney present, the 32-year-old Idaho pastor was convicted of charges stemming from his efforts of more than a decade ago to establish a home-based Christian ministry in Iran.
In the letter, 84 Congress members applauded Kerry for saying that Abedini's imprisonment represents "a violation of the universal right of freedom of religion," and said the case is particularly troubling in light of Abedini's U.S. citizenship.
"Every American citizen traveling or living abroad should have the assurance that the U.S. government will come vigorously to his or her defense if they are unjustly detained or imprisoned," the letter states. "We respectfully request that you continue to use every diplomatic avenue possible, in cooperation with our allies and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, to secure Mr. Abedini's unconditional release and personally and publicly condemn his arbitrary detention in a statement."
Sekulow, in an ACLJ press release, called the Congressional letter a significant bipartisan effort.
"This letter from a politically broad spectrum of members of Congress underscores the real issue here: the U.S. government must protect its citizens and exercise every diplomatic tool available to secure the freedom of Pastor Saeed."
Abedini converted to Christianity 13 years ago while living in Iran and became an evangelist there, establishing home churches and orphanages to spread the Gospel. After much persecution, he moved to the U.S. and gained citizenship, but returned frequently to the Islamic nation.
In July 2012, during Abedini's ninth visit to Iran since 2009, Iranian authorities confiscated his passports, forcing him to remain in the county. Two months later, authorities arrested him on charges related to the Christian faith. He was placed in solitary confinement, beaten, and aggressively interrogated, according to news reports. His trial was held in January.
Naghmeh Abedini, in an interview with Asia Harvest, urged Christians to pray for her husband's release.
"Our greatest source of strength and need is prayer. In all other ways, God will provide," Asia Harvest quoted her as saying. "Saeed wants nothing more than God's kingdom to come to the Middle East. If the church draws close to God in prayer during suffering, then there will be amazing blessing in revival. Prayer encourages the one in prison to endure suffering and to be a joy and a light to those around him."
Calls for Abedini's release come as Iran shows no signs of relenting in its persecution of Christians and their defenders. Pastor Benham Irani continues to languish in prison under a six-year sentence for "acting against the interests of national security," according to International Christian Concern, a Washington advocacy group for the persecuted church.
Compiled by Baptist Press staff writer Diana Chandler. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).