WASHINGTON – With a new president in Iran vowing to improve international relations, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry Aug. 28 called on Iran to release an Iranian-American pastor held captive for his faith.
“The United States respectfully asks the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran to work cooperatively with us in our efforts to help U.S. citizens Robert Levinson, Amir Hekmati, and Saeed Abedini to return to their families after lengthy detentions,” Kerry said in a statement.
Levinson went missing in Iran in 2007 and Hekmati has been detained on espionage charges for two years. Abedini was arrested last September and sentenced to eight years in prison, with a Tehran court days ago denying his appeal.
Kerry noted that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who was elected in June to succeed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, “has shared in his speeches and interviews over the past few months his hope and vision to improve the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s relationship with the world.”
“We urge the Iranian Government to release Mr. Hekmati and Mr. Abedini and to help us locate Mr. Levinson so that they may be reunited with their families as safely and as soon as possible,” Kerry said.
“These men belong at home with those who love and miss them.”
The statement marks the second time Kerry has spoken on behalf of Abedini. In a statement in March, Kerry said he was “deeply concerned” about the pastor and was “disturbed by reports” that he was suffering physical and psychological abuse in prison.
Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice, a key advocate for Abedini’s release, described Kerry’s statement as an important diplomatic step in the effort for Abedini’s freedom.
“We welcome this renewed involvement and effort initiated by Secretary Kerry to bring Pastor Saeed – a U.S. citizen imprisoned for his faith – back home to his wife and young children,” Sekulow said.
“… This statement from America’s top diplomat reaffirms that despite the devastating legal decision in Iran, the fight for Pastor Saeed’s freedom is far from over. It is a critical time to reengage Iran, to use all diplomatic avenues to secure his release,” Sekulow said.
Abedini’s wife, Idaho resident Naghmeh Abedini, said Aug. 29 she is thankful for Kerry’s statement but “I still expect my president, President Obama, who has remained silent thus far, to speak out on this very critical human rights issue and let the Iranian government and the world know that religious freedom is still a top priority for our government.”
“President Obama must demonstrate that America will not stay silent in the face of religious persecution, nor will it let an American citizen waste away in an Iranian prison simply because he chose to follow Jesus,” Naghmeh Abedini said.
Abedini was sentenced in January for threatening “national security,” which is a catch-all phrase often used by Iranian courts to imprison converts from Islam for various sorts of evangelistic activities. Upon his arrest, he was taken to Evin Prison in Tehran, known for its particularly harsh treatment of prisoners.
During his months in prison, the pastor has been placed in solitary confinement at least twice and has endured repeated beatings by prison officials who have attempted to force him to recant his faith in Jesus. For months he was denied medical treatment for internal bleeding caused by the beatings.
Abedini’s response, he wrote in an earlier letter, is Romans 8:35-39, which says persecution and death cannot separate a believer from Christ.
“The reality of Christian living is that difficulties or problems do arise in our lives,” Abedini wrote. “Persecution and difficulties are not new occurrences, but are seen often in the Christian life. It is through the suffering and tribulations that we are to enter the Kingdom of God.”
Prayer vigils for the pastor are being planned worldwide for Sept. 26 to mark one year since his arrest, to call attention to his plight and to intercede on his behalf. More information about the vigils can be found at SaveSaeed.org, where more than 600,000 people have signed a petition for his release.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Erin Roach is assistant editor of Baptist Press.)