TEHRAN – An American pastor has been imprisoned on secret charges and tortured in Iran as the country pursues a crackdown on house churches.
Fox News reports that Saeed Abedini, a 32-year-old Iranian man who is a U.S. citizen, was detained while on a visit to see family members and conduct humanitarian work. Abedini, who lives in the United States with his wife and two children, previously spent years in Iran developing house churches.
“When he became a Christian, he became a criminal in his own country. His passion was to reach the people of Iran," Naghmeh, his wife, told Fox News.
Naghmeh explained that her husband once was a radical Muslim in training as a suicide bomber, but the training depressed him and he turned to Christ.
“Christianity saved his life,” she said.
According to International Christian Concern, an aid and advocacy organization for the persecuted church, Iran is in the midst of a crackdown on house churches.
Ahmed Shaheed, U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, told Reuters that the country has arbitrarily arrested and detained more than 300 Christians since 2010, including at least 41 people detained from a month to more than a year.
“Scores of other Christians appear to remain in detention for freely practicing their religion,” he said.
Abedini started a network of clandestine house churches for Muslim converts to Christianity, spanning roughly 100 churches with more than 2,000 members. It’s a movement Naghmeh told Fox News the Iranian government fears.
“They think if the country becomes more Christian, they are no longer under Islamic authority,” she said. “That’s why it’s a threat.”
Abedini’s Iranian family members, all Muslim converts to Christianity, are under house arrest, Fox News reported. Abedini awaits trial in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison, where he has been severely beaten both by prison guards and cellmates who self-identify as Al Qaeda members. As a Muslim convert to Christianity, he could face the death penalty.
Abedini previously was arrested by Iranian authorities in 2009 but was released after signing an agreement to stop all official house church activities, according to Fox News. His family’s attorneys have said he honored that agreement.
“He thought if he honored his part, they would honor theirs. He was transparent about his humanitarian work there,” Tiffany Barrans, international legal director at the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which is representing Abedini’s American family, told Fox News.
In an ACLJ news release, the organization announced a campaign calling on the United Nations, the U.S. State Department and Congress to demand Abedini’s release.
“This is a very troubling pattern that we have seen inside Iran – Christian husbands and fathers who are punished for their religious beliefs,” said Jordan Sekulow, ACLJ’s executive director.
Abedini’s detention comes as Iranian pastor Behnam Irani languishes in prison for “actions against the Islamic state.”
According to a report by Christian Solidarity Worldwide, an organization that promotes religious freedom, Irani has been severely beaten by guards and inmates, causing acute stomach ulcers and colon complications that led to blood infection, severe bleeding and weight loss.
Morning Star News, a Christian news service focusing on the persecuted church, reported that sources close to Irani say authorities intend to kill him by denying him medical treatment.
“The prison scheduled a time for him to have surgery several months ago, but mysteriously this decision was reversed and he was not allowed to receive medical attention,” Jason DeMars of Present Truth Ministries, an organization that seeks to bring the gospel to Muslims and aid the persecuted Middle Eastern church, told Morning Star News.
“Those close to the case believe this is a deliberate attempt to bring about the conditions so that Pastor Behnam would die in prison as a result of his sickness,” DeMars said.
According to Morning Star News, Irani was arrested in 2006 for “actions against national security” and handed a five-year suspended sentence, which a judge ordered him to serve in 2011 due to charges of leading a house church service. The judge also labeled Irani an “apostate” from Islam, which could potentially lead to the death penalty.
In a letter released by Present Truth Ministries, Irani said he has learned more about extending the love of Christ while in prison.
“Here, I live with cellmates that you can hardly see something positive in their lives and personalities,” he wrote. “They don’t think about anything but negative values, abhorrent acts, learning new experiences in crimes and nasty literature.
“[But] immediately, I remember that Jesus Christ was sacrificed for their sins too. I become weary of myself for being unable to reflect this love to the darkness of my surroundings.”
Three months ago, pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, an Iranian convert to Christianity, was released from prison after three years. Initially charged with apostasy (leaving Islam) and sentenced to death, Nadarkhani was given four chances to recant his faith, but he refused.
After significant international pressure, he was acquitted of the apostasy charge but found guilty of evangelizing Muslims and sentenced to time already served, according to Christian Solidarity Worldwide. The ACLJ noted in its news release, however, that Nadarkhani’s attorney was thrown in prison for representing him and others in Iran.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – John Evans is a writer in Houston.)