Fighting for religious freedom: The plight of Saeed Abedini and America’s response

“I was devastated to learn that the [Obama] Administration didn’t even ask for my husband’s release when directly seated across the table from the leaders of the government that holds him captive.” Naghmeh Abedini

By Georgiana Constantin | January 9, 2014

Naghmeh Abedini, wife of Pastor Saeed Abedini, testifies before a Foreign Affairs Subcommittee in Congress. Photo: U.S. House/LOC

Saeed Abedini is an Iranian born American and former Muslim who converted to Christianity.

In 2008 he became a pastor in Boise, Idaho, where he lived with his wife and two children. In January 2013, he was sentenced to eight years in prison, accused of endangering national security by establishing home churches and undermining the Iranian government by trying to spread the Christian faith. His wife “Naghmeh Abedini claims that her husband, Saeed Abedini, went to Iran to build an orphanage but was imprisoned unjustly because of his Christian beliefs,” as CNN reports. The 33 year old Abedini, a U.S. citizen since 2010, purportedly made regular trips to Iran, and, on this fateful journey in 2012, he was on a bus crossing from Turkey into Iran when, according to his wife, “members of the Revolutionary Guard pulled him off the bus,” took away his passport and later jailed him. Soon after, an Iranian news agency reported that he would be released on bail.

In January 2013, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom described charges against Saeed Abedini as “trumped up” and called for his immediate release.

In a January 2013 letter to his family, Saeed Abedini spoke of torture and death threats. “This is the process in my life today: one day I am told I will be freed and allowed to see my kids on Christmas (which was a lie) and the next day I am told I will hang for my faith in Jesus,” he revealed. “One day there are intense pains after beatings in interrogations, the next day they are nice to you and offer you candy.”

Since then, Saeed Abedini has been moved from Evin Prison, a facility for political prisoners, to Rajai Shahr Prison. On December 12, Naghmeh Abedini, in testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, stated: “After he endured more than a year in one of the world’s worst prisons, Evin Prison in Tehran, on November 3, 2013, the Iranian regime transferred my husband to Iran’s most deadly prison, Rajaï Shahr. The Iranian regime sends prisoners to Rajaï Shahr to disappear. It sends prisoners to Rajaï Shahr to de[n]y them their human rights. It sends prisoners to Rajaï Shahr to die.”

Subcommittee Chairman Chris Smith, a champion of human rights in Congress stated: “The very fact that Pastor Abedini was moved to a dangerous prison in the middle of [nuclear] negotiations confirms that the Iranians recognized him as a potential factor in the negotiations. Since August of 2012, the United States has reportedly released four Iranians, including most recently a high-ranking scientist, who were imprisoned in the U.S. for sanctions violations.”

Saeed had been warned by the Iranian government to cease his activity as pastor for Christian churches and try to “focus his energy on humanitarian efforts,” such as the orphanage with which he was involved. Naghmeh Abedini claims “he did just that, caring for the poor, the fatherless, those children who had no home in his native land. Saeed had upheld his promise not to act as a pastor and was instead simply completing work on the orphanage when he was taken into custody. He violated no law. He threatened no one. He only sought to care for the fatherless. And now his own children have been fatherless for almost a year and a half.”

Since Article 13 of the Iranian Constitution states that “Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian Iranians are the only recognized religious minorities, who, within the limits of the law, are free to perform their religious rites and ceremonies, and to act according to their own canon in matters of personal affairs and religious education,” it is unclear to Saeed Abedini’s wife and his supporters why practicing his faith the way he did should have posed any threat to the Iranian government. “But how little do these commitments mean if peaceful gatherings of Christians solely for religious purposes are treated as threats to the security of Iran and used as a justification for imprisonment and abuse – even many years after they took place?” Naghmeh goes on to add in her statement.

Seeing as how, despite public pressure, the release of Pastor Abedini has not been made a diplomatic priority by the Obama administration, among the questions asked by many are: What does this mean for any other American citizen going abroad? Are they to fear their government’s lack of commitment in protecting them? Are they to feel abandoned? What does such behavior say about the power and priorities of the United States and its current administration?

“I feel my husband has been abandoned,” Naghmeh claims, as releasing pastor Saeed Abedini was apparently not brought up during recent nuclear deal negotiations with Iran. “I am standing before you today because religious persecution is real,” Naghmeh Abedini further states. “And until we stand up as one – as Americans, as political leaders, and government officials, as people who have been endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights – we will not truly embrace the responsibility that comes with that freedom.” She added that Iran’s detainment and torture of her husband constitutes an assault against U.S. national security. She called his detention “an experiment” as officials seem to be “curious” to find out how strong President Obama is, and if he would take immediate action to free the pastor.

In the end, Naghmeh could only express her disappointment and concern regarding the efforts to free her husband. “While I am thankful for President Obama’s willingness to express concern about my husband and the other imprisoned Americans in Iran during his recent phone conversation with Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, I was devastated to learn that the Administration didn’t even ask for my husband’s release when directly seated across the table from the leaders of the government that holds him captive.” Is this sad state of affairs to be the fate of many more Americans in the future?

Incidents involving the arrest of Americans abroad are not anything new. However, what stands out in this case is the fact that the United States had both the opportunity and the means to ask for Abedini’s release, yet for some reason, they seem to have chosen not to. What has changed that America should allow its citizens to be detained, mistreated and imprisoned for their religious beliefs, particularly by Islamic governments, without a strong diplomatic or political counteraction?

As time goes on, one can only hope that Saeed Abedini, Christian pastor and American citizen will be allowed to return to his family in Idaho and be able to put this traumatizing experience behind him. One can only hope that the United States of America does not forget about its most prized treasure, its citizens.

Georgiana Constantin is a law school graduate who has studied European, International and Romanian law. Her thesis on the UN and global governance was completed at the Romanian-American University in Bucharest. She is currently a Masters candidate for International and European Law at the Nicolae Titulescu University in Bucharest. Ms. Constantin, who is based in Romania, is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.