WASHINGTON – The U.S. government and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) have issued calls for the release of an American pastor who may face the gallows for spreading the gospel in Iran.
Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-born pastor who is a naturalized U.S. citizen, faces charges of undermining the Iranian government by planting house churches and of trying to turn the country’s youth from Islam, according to media reports.
Abedini’s supporters say he was in Iran last summer to finish building an orphanage when members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard hauled him away in a bus for prison, according to World Watch Monitor, a news service focusing on the persecuted church. Abedini has suffered beatings while in prison and now faces trial before a Revolutionary Court judge, Abbas Pir-Abbassi, labeled a human rights violator by the European Union and infamous for his harsh sentencing – including executions – of students who protested Iran’s 2009 elections.
The U.S. State Department has yet to call for Abedini’s release, although U.S. National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor urged Jan. 18 that the pastor be freed.
“We remain troubled by the case of U.S. citizen Saeed Abedini, who was arrested by Iranian officials more than three months ago on charges relating to his religious beliefs,” Vietor said, according to Fox News. “We call upon Iranian authorities to release him immediately.”
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a government advisory body, also called for Abedini’s release and denounced Iran’s “trumped-up” charges.
“The national security charges leveled against Mr. Abedini are bogus and are a typical tactic by the Iranian government to masquerade the real reason for the charges: to suppress religious belief and activity of which the Iranian government does not approve,” USCIRF chair Katrina Lantos Swett said in a news release, adding that Abedini cannot expect justice in court.
“Judge Pir-Abbassi is notorious for conducting swift trials and imposing lengthy prison terms, as well as the death penalty, without any semblance of due process,” Swett said.
Iranian state media had reported on Monday (Jan. 21) that Saeed would be freed on bail, a report that Saeed’s wife, Naghmeh Abedini, denounced as a lie, according to Fox News.
“This has been a repeated promise by the Iranian regime since Saeed was first thrown in prison on Sept. 26, 2012,” she told Fox. “We have presented bail. After the judge told Saeed’s lawyer that bail was back on the table, the family in Tehran ran around in circles today to make sure Saeed was let out on bail. But again the bail officer rejected bail.”
CNN reported that a trial of Abedini began Monday (Jan. 1). The pastor gave the judge a written statement and answered questions by prosecutors and his defense attorney.
The trial included a hearing – from which Abedini and his lawyer were barred – in which a lay church leader was called to testify about his connection to Abedini, according to a blog post by Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ). Questions ranged from whether Abedini encouraged conversion to Christianity and how he financed his trips to establish an orphanage in Iran.
During a conference call reported by CNN, Naghmeh Abedini said she last spoke to her husband on Jan. 9. “He sounded OK,” she said. “He sounded tired. He said he had come to a realization that they would not be releasing him anytime soon. Up until Christmas he had had hope.”
According to World Watch Monitor, Saeed Abedini converted from Islam to Christianity in 2000 and helped start house churches in Iran. He had been arrested multiple times by authorities, but Tiffany Barrans, ACLJ’s international legal director, told World Watch Monitor that in 2009 the pastor made a deal with Iran’s intelligence police. That deal allowed him to come back to Iran to build an orphanage in exchange for staying out of house church work, an agreement his supporters say he kept. But before his latest trip to Iran, the religiously controlled Revolutionary Guard took jurisdiction over Iran’s Christian community from the intelligence police, Barrans said, coinciding with a more aggressive campaign to drive Christianity out of Iran.
Barrans told World Watch Monitor that the U.S. could put pressure on Iran through countries like Brazil and Turkey, which have strong economic ties with Iran.
“We can reach out to multiple countries to just put in an inquiry on Pastor Saeed,” Barrans said. “If Iran takes enough inquiries from friends, they will take notice of Saeed’s case and ensure justice is done, whether that means he receives a fair trial, or they take him out of the Revolutionary Court system, or if they release him immediately.”
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and a former USCIRF commissioner, called Saeed Abedini’s ordeal “yet one more example of the Iranian government trampling the human rights of people who don’t kowtow to their dictates concerning religious and political beliefs.”
Abedini’s trial comes 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 if national security,” according to International Christian Concern, a Washington advocacy group for the persecuted church.
In addition, Iranian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, who was acquitted in September of apostasy charges that could have brought execution, was thrown back in prison for a brief stint – incarcerated on Christmas Day but released Jan. 8. His attorney, however, sits in prison under a lengthy sentence, according to the British religious rights organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide. Mohammed Ali Dadkhah, a prominent Iranian human rights lawyer who helped secure Nadarkhani’s release, was jailed and disbarred for 10 years in September 2012. Reports indicate his health is rapidly deteriorating.
Abedini’s wife Nagmeh, who lives in the U.S. with her and Saeed’s two small children, told the Boise, Idaho, TV station KBOI of a conversation she had with her husband over the phone.
“It was weeks and weeks before I even heard his voice,” she said. “He shared that he really misses the kids and me and really wants to be home.”
The ACLJ is taking a petition to President Obama, Congress and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging all available diplomatic and legislative means to be used in securing Saeed Abedini’s release. The petition is online at http://aclj.org/iran/save-american-pastor-iranian-abuse-imprisonment.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – John Evans is a writer based in Houston.)