UN hears from persecuted pastor's wife
"I hope that my presence here today will put a face to those who suffer when a government does not uphold its obligation to protect these freedoms," Naghmeh Abedini said, referring to the rights of religious freedom, expression and peaceful assembly.
"This past week and today, this council has called on member states to recognize and uphold these fundamental freedoms," she noted with Iranian representatives in the audience in Geneva, Switzerland.
Abedini recounted in her brief remarks how she received a phone call in the middle of the night last September notifying her that Iran's Revolutionary Guard had placed her husband in solitary confinement in Tehran's notorious Evin prison.
Saeed Abedini, a former house church leader in Iran who since had moved to Idaho, had been arrested while on a trip to build a non-sectarian orphanage. Months of physical and psychological torture have followed, even as people worldwide have rallied for his release.
"My husband has broken no Iranian law," Naghmeh Abedini told the UN. "He simply exercised fundamental rights that Iran has acknowledged before this body that it would uphold. Iran has kept Saeed imprisoned because he believes in forgiveness of sin through Jesus Christ and that whoever accepts this forgiveness of sin can be reconciled to the God of peace and love. This is the God of peace we are all searching for."
Abedini's testimony followed that of Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice, which is representing Abedini in the fight for her husband's freedom.
Sekulow told the Human Rights Council May 30 it is "incumbent on the HRC to remember that the basic right to freedom of peaceful assembly applies 'without distinction of any kind' and necessarily includes freedom of religious assembly."
States have an obligation to actively protect peaceful assemblies unless they threaten national security, Sekulow said, and "the Islamic Republic of Iran has failed to meet the strict test required to derogate from its obligation."
"Saeed's peaceful assembly violated no promulgated law nor has Iran demonstrated how the peaceful assembly of its religious minorities threatens its security," Sekulow told the council with Naghmeh Abedini seated beside him.
Iran's restriction on peaceful assembly has resulted, in Saeed's case, "in a severe violation of his basic right to peaceful assembly and religious freedom," Sekulow said.
"This violation must be addressed in order that the intersection between rights of religious expression and peaceful assembly may be reinforced as a cornerstone upon which peace may be established," Sekulow said, calling for Abedini's immediate release.
The White House responded May 31 to a Fox News correspondent by issuing a paper statement regarding Abedini's case. During Friday's press briefing, Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest had been unable to answer a question posed by Fox News about what the White House was doing on Abedini's behalf. The statement was delivered after the briefing.
"We remain deeply concerned about U.S. citizen Saeed Abedini who has been sentenced to 8 years in prison in Iran on charges related to his religious beliefs," the White House statement said. "We can confirm that Mrs. Abedini and her lawyer met with U.S. Ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva Eileen Donahoe.
"We have reached out to numerous international partners to raise awareness of Mr. Abedini's case and to press Iranian officials to provide him medical attention and to release him," the White House said. "We continue to send requests for consular access and to press for his release through our Swiss Protecting Power in Tehran.
"As in every communication we send on this case, the Iranians refuse all requests, as they do not recognize Mr. Abedini's US citizenship. We will continue to press for Mr. Abedini's release ... until [he is] safely returned to [his] famil[y]."
Sekulow, in an ACLJ blog post June 4, said it's impossible to overstate the importance of Naghmeh Abedini presenting her husband's case directly to world leaders.
"They looked directly in the eyes, heard her pleas and saw her pain," Sekulow said. "The empathy and compassion of the world could be felt as she delivered her remarks. Her comments were well received by non-governmental organizations as well as member states."
Abedini, in comments to ACLJ, said being able to speak to the council "forces countries that generally talk about human rights in abstract themes to stare at the face of persecution."
"I am not just an advocate, but a wife currently enduring the effects of Iran's human rights abuses," she said, adding that the experience required her to stretch beyond her comfort zone on her husband's behalf and could serve as a challenge to others.
Sekulow said Abedini, who resides in Idaho with her family and two children, "represents the face of how Iran's persecution of Christians truly has a worldwide impact." He also noted that the opportunity to present Saeed Abedini's case at the United Nations was the best opportunity they have had to raise his case.
The international effort on Saeed Abedini's behalf reached a milestone May 31, Sekulow said, as more than 600,000 people have signed a petition for his freedom at SaveSaeed.org.
A report by CNSNews.com, a division of the Brent Bozell-led Media Research Center, indicated that Saeed Abedini now has been accused in Iranian media of spying for the U.S. government and brainwashing young Iranian Muslims.
CNS quoted Mohabat News, an independent Iranian Christian news agency, which referred to reports by Iran's Bultan News and Didehban News -- both linked to Iran's intelligence service.
The Iranian media charged that Abedini had been sent to Iran with nine objectives, including the illegal planting of house churches, creating financial networks to support the spread of "Zionist Christianity" by brainwashing and recruiting Iranian orphans, and transmitting news from inside Iran "directly to the White House," CNS said June 3.
Mohabat News, CNS said, interpreted the reports as designed to smear Iran's reformist camp ahead of presidential elections June 14 by associating reformists with Christians.
The Bultan report, CNS noted, carried the headline "The Reformist Government; Favorable for Zionist Christians," and it cited an interview in which Naghmeh Abedini said the administration of former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami was more open to Christians.
"Mohabat said the Bultan approach was in line with other attempts by regime elements to discredit reformists as elections loom," CNS said. "Khatami is not running for the presidency but remains a prominent figure among Iranian reformists. Among the eight presidential hopefuls allowed to compete, two are considered reformists, and both were prominent members of Khatami's 1997-2005 administration."
As political powers struggle and the international community presses for his release, Saeed Abedini wrote in a letter released May 21 that he remains hopeful.
"I heard that the persecution, my arrest and imprisonment has united churches from different denominations, from different cities and countries that would never come together because of their differences," Abedini wrote.
"... You don't know how happy I was in the Lord and rejoiced knowing that in my chains the body of Christ has chained together and is brought to action and prayer," he added.
Abedini said he is thankful for the international support and that God is using him in prison. "Many have been freed from the chains of Satan here and have been saved and added to the Church," he wrote.
In a challenge to believers worldwide, Abedini expressed a desire for the church to show similar concern for those who don't know Christ.
"With the same passion and the same way that you are praying and fighting for my freedom, we need to be praying and fighting for the salvation of the world," Abedini wrote from prison.
Erin Roach is assistant editor of Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).