Saeed Abedini, DC’s other Iran issue, comes to the fore

With an interim nuclear deal on the horizon, one pastor’s fate is at the center of calls to keep relations with Tehran cool

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

Saeed Abedini with his family before his arrest (photo credit: courtesy American Center for Law and Justice)
Saeed Abedini with his family before his arrest (photo credit: courtesy American Center for Law and Justice)

WASHINGTON — Saeed Abedini may not be a household name in Israel, or even in most American homes, but for some members of Congress and his fervent supporters, he is a cause célèbre – a Jonathan Pollard or a Gilad Shalit. With talks between Iran and the P5+1 nations bringing the two sides closer to a deal over Iran’s nuclear program, the Iranian-American pastor from Boise, Idaho, is the other Iran issue – the one that is no nearer to resolution than before the talks began.

For those who have never heard of Abedini, the description might seem absurd, or at least overstated. But in the last week alone, four senators authored a bipartisan resolution calling for Abedini’s immediate release from a notorious Iranian prison, seven members of Congress went on the record addressing the plight of the jailed Christian, and 23 senators from both parties signed a letter calling for immediate presidential action.

Abedini, whose plight has been raised by President Barack Obama, addressed by the State Department, and headlined by right-wing news outlets, offers a powerful argument for why the US should continue to be wary of Iran’s overtures.

Abedini, 33, was detained in the summer of 2012 during a trip to Iran, where his supporters say he was visiting his family and raising money for orphanages. It was the tenth trip to Iran in four years for the Iranian-born pastor, who was detained and incarcerated on suspicion of undermining national security. In January 2013, he was sentenced to eight years in prison – reportedly for missionary activities carried out almost a decade earlier – and the campaign for his release became a hot topic in American evangelical circles.

Abedini converted from Islam to Christianity at the age of 20 while he was still living in Iran. Two years later, he met and married Naghmeh, a dual citizen who was living in the country.

The two were active in what is known as the “house church” movement, through which Iranian Christians hold secret worship sessions at underground churches to evade the watchful eyes of the Iranian regime. Although Christianity is legally recognized as a minority religion in the Iranian constitution, the regime is hostile toward Christian practice.

Only last week, three Christians were sentenced to 80 lashes each after being caught drinking communion wine during a “house church” ceremony. An October United Nations report documented that in July 2013, at least 20 Christians were in custody. The UN report also noted that “violations of the rights of Christians, particularly those belonging to evangelical Protestant groups, many of whom are converts, who proselytize to and serve Iranian Christians of Muslim background, continue to be reported.”

According to the report, over 300 Christians have been arrested in the last three years in Iran, and dozens of clergy and lay leaders have “reportedly been convicted of national security crimes in connection with church activities, such as organizing prayer groups, proselytizing and attending Christian seminars abroad.” Authorities compel licensed Protestant churches “to restrict Persian-speaking and Muslim-born Iranians from participating in services, and raids and forced closures of house churches are ongoing.”

Abedini is one of dozens – but he is also one of three Americans currently jailed in Iran. He was found guilty of threatening national security due to his activism in the early part of the decade, when he allegedly established around 100 house churches in 30 cities – totaling an estimated 2,000 members.

With the ascent of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power in 2005, the Abedinis moved to America, where he became an ordained minister in 2008 and a US citizen in 2010. He and his wife settled with their two children in Boise, where Naghmeh grew up.

But in 2009, Abedini went back to visit his native country. He was detained by government authorities and, by his own account, released only after he signed a commitment to stop house church activities in the Islamic Republic. He did not, however, stop visiting Iran. Between 2009 and 2012, he made nine trips back and forth.

Fox News has extensively covered his case, as have Christian media outlets throughout the country. Over 200,000 people have signed on to a petition calling for Abedini’s release, and his wife has traveled around the country speaking to evangelical audiences about her husband’s plight.

Abedini’s case has garnered increasing attention in Washington. When he was sentenced, the State Department issued a statement condemning “Iran’s continued violation of the universal right of freedom of religion” and called for his release. In April, a bipartisan group of representatives submitted a resolution demanding Abedini’s immediate release.

When Obama held his historic phone call with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the US president expressed “concern” over Abedini’s arrest and sentencing, as well as over the two other Americans: Robert Levinson, who is missing, and Amir Hekmati, who has been jailed and accused of spying for the US.

As relations between the administrations have warmed, Abedini’s supporters have become more and more active in their advocacy. His name has been mentioned in Congress at least once every week since the session opened in September.

His case has also been leveraged as a reason to keep relations with Iran cold – and as a precondition for interaction with Tehran. On the eve of the United Nations General Assembly, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) filed a resolution calling on the Iranian government to “affirm the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state” and to “immediately and without conditions releases all United States citizens unjustly detained as prisoners of conscience in Iran” as preconditions for a bilateral meeting between Rouhani and Obama. Days later, Rep. Daniel Labrador (R-ID) called for a halt to all diplomacy with Iran until Abedini is released and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) published an op-ed in the Christian Post titled “One Year Anniversary of US Citizen Saeed Abedini’s Imprisonment in Iran.”

That same day, Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-NC) made a statement on the House floor regarding the imprisonment of Abedini, referencing a letter by religious icon Rev. Billy Graham on the subject.

Last week, the bipartisan group of four senators introduced the Senate resolution calling on Iran “to immediately release Saeed Abedini and all other individuals detained on account of their religious beliefs.”

In the face of Congressional action, however, Abedini’s conditions have yet to improve. To the disappointment of his supporters, as Iran and the P5+1 draw closer to an agreement, Abedini’s fate seems more bleak than ever.

On the eve of the newest round of nuclear talks in Geneva, Abedini was transferred from Evin Prison, where he had been jailed since September 2012 to Rajai Shahr (Gohardasht) Prison, a facility known as the site where political prisoners “disappear” or fall victim to acts of violence by other inmates.

For senators who have taken a hard-line approach on Iran’s nuclear program, this transfer was a sign that nuclear negotiators were not acting on good faith. Cruz complained that the act “could hardly be more clearly designed to send the opposite message” from reconciliation between Iran and the United States. “It is difficult to see how the Obama administration can engage in good-faith talks with the Islamic Republic of Iran under these circumstances,” he added.

Cruz reiterated his call for the US to demand Abedini’s release “as a precondition to any further negotiations” and authored a letter that garnered bipartisan support from 23 senators calling on the president to raise the issue of Abedini’s imprisonment and “speak out boldly on behalf of Pastor Saeed.”

Reportedly placed in a cell together with Iranian death row inmates, Abedini’s time may be running out. But with a possible nuclear deal on the horizon, vocal congressional backers, and Iran reportedly eager to talk turkey, his time may finally have come.

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