'At Times I've Felt Saeed Has Been Abandoned': Pastor in Iran's Hands for Nearly 2 Years
Naghmeh Abedini, the wife of Pastor Saeed Abedini, credits her husband as the more "nurturing" parent, a dad who loves to tuck in their children Rebekka and Jacob each night.
It was that nurturing spirit, coupled with a passion for helping the less fortunate in his home country, that led the Abedinis to start an orphanage in Iran -- a noble mission that would ultimately bring a nightmare upon this Idaho family.
"He's a very compassionate and sensitive person," Naghmeh told PJM. "The reason he was in Iran is he has a heart to help."
After Saeed's 2012 arrest by Iranian authorities, he was convicted in January 2013 for crimes against the national security of Iran, a charge tied to his involvement many years earlier with establishing Christian house churches. Sentenced to eight years behind bars, the 34-year-old has endured torture and is in ill health. And in Boise, his family prays and waits for someone to help bring Saeed home.
"All of a sudden, I became a single mom," Naghmeh said, adding that the "last 2 years have felt like 10 years" to their children.
"It's been an emotional roller coaster."
The Abedinis' journey began in 2000, when Saeed converted from Islam to Christianity and started house churches in Iran under government supervision. He met Naghmeh, who has lived in the U.S. since the fourth grade, in Tehran in 2002, and they married two years later. Their 10th wedding anniversary arrives at the end of this month.
In 2005, Saeed and Naghmeh came back to the U.S. after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stepped up persecution of Christians. Saeed became a naturalized citizen in 2010.
Saeed's first brush with Iranian authorities was in 2009, when the family paid a visit to Iran and the pastor was arrested at the airport. He agreed to stop house church activities, and the Iranian government agreed to let him come and go as he pleased from the country.
Thus began another sort of agreement with the government. Saeed told officials that he wanted to help the Iranian people, and the government gave him approval and encouragement to start an orphanage in Rasht, a northern city near the Caspian coast where they already had a bit of land and could get a building at minimal cost.
"The intelligence police told him, why not do humanitarian efforts?" Naghmeh said. Saeed and the authorities discussed the value of taking in kids no one wanted.
The Abedinis visited Rasht and met local residents who were happy that someone would come take the time to build out the facilities needed to house the orphans. Saeed traveled to and from Iran eight times from 2009 to 2012 as the orphanage came together.
"They were very thankful and open to it, especially the kids -- mostly all girls -- they were happy that someone would out of their own funds want to help them find a home and be a part of a family," Naghmeh said.
Toward the end of 2011, Naghmeh and the children went to stay in Rasht to be there for the opening of the orphanage. There were just a few finishing touches to be put on the building and additional board members to approve, and famous musicians were volunteering their time for a concert in Tehran to help the orphanage.
Then, on his ninth trip, Saeed was pulled off a bus at the border with Turkey on July 28, 2012, by Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps. He was interrogated and placed under house arrest with his parents in Tehran. On Sept. 26, 2012, the family's home was raided by the IRGC and he was dragged off to Evin prison, notorious for its political prisoners wing.
"Like anyone that goes through a sudden accident or a loss" is how Naghmeh described the feeling when her husband disappeared into Iranian custody. "Things were going great; we even felt safe enough to take our kids. It was a devastating blow to our family."
She suspects that the sudden change of heart from an Iranian government that once welcomed the orphanage effort was the result of an oversight handoff from the intelligence police to the IRGC, coupled with a shift in how the government dealt with religious minorities, including the closure of churches under government control. "We believe they used Saeed as an example to cause fear, to not want people to convert to Christianity," she added, in a sort of "soft war" on the faithful.
During the week of Saeed's Janaury 2013 trial, White House press secretary Jay Carney was asked at a daily briefing about reports that the pastor had been beaten while in captivity and whether there had been "any diplomatic attempts to try to influence what’s happening there."
"Well, I can tell you a couple of things. One, that we remain concerned about Saeed Abedini, who is, as you mentioned, detained in Iran on a charge related to his religious beliefs. The State Department is in close contact with his family and is actively engaged on this case," Carney said. "As you know, Mr. Abedini’s attorney had only one day to present his defense. And earlier this week, Mr. Abedini was not allowed to attend his own trial, so we remain deeply concerned about the fairness and transparency of that trial."
"We condemn Iran’s continued violation of the universal right of freedom or religion, and we call on the Iranian authorities to release Mr. Abedini," Carney added.
Naghmeh first had contact with the State Department in August 2012, where they advised her that it was a wait-and-see situation with not much to be done. The U.S. government didn't make its first public statement on Saeed's case until nearly half a year after his arrest.
The American Center for Law and Justice, which has been working with Naghmeh since her husband's arrest, branded the eight-year term in Evin prison "a virtual death sentence."
The sentence also piqued the attention of Capitol Hill, with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) stressing in a letter to President Obama that “Pastor Abedini’s case is symbolic of the gross injustice against all Christians in Iran today."
“While I fully recognize the myriad national security issues posed by the fanatical theocracy in Tehran, I believe the case of Pastor Abedini deserves your full attention and engagement,” wrote Graham on Jan. 30, 2013.
Naghmeh testified before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on March 15, 2013. "America has given me the most amazing gift of allowing me religious freedom. I am proud to be an American because of this religious freedom," she told lawmakers. "I would have never been given this freedom if I had lived in Iran. I only hope and pray that our country will continue to stand up for what is right. That our country would continue to stand up for religious liberty and be a world leader and a leading voice in this world for religious liberty."
The day Saeed became a U.S. citizen, she noted, was "one of the best days of his life and he was so proud to be an American."
The first months of Saeed's sentence were brutal. On March 3, 2013, he told his family that he suspected internal bleeding from the torture and repeated beatings he endured. This was confirmed by doctors on March 21, and the next day Secretary of State John Kerry released his first statement on Saeed's case.
"I am deeply concerned about the fate of U.S. citizen Saeed Abedini, who has been detained for nearly six months and was sentenced to eight years in prison in Iran on charges related to his religious beliefs. I am disturbed by reports that Mr. Abedini has suffered physical and psychological abuse in prison, and that his condition has become increasingly dire. Such mistreatment violates international norms as well as Iran’s own laws," Kerry said.
"I am also troubled by the lack of due process in Mr. Abedini’s case and Iran’s continued refusal to allow consular access by Swiss authorities, the U.S. protecting power in Iran," he added. "I welcome reports that Mr. Abedini was examined by a physician and expect Iranian authorities to honor their commitment to allow Mr. Abedini to receive treatment for these injuries from a specialist outside the prison. The best outcome for Mr. Abedini is that he be immediately released."
Over the summer of 2013 Saeed was shuffled to and from the hospital for more internal injuries due to beatings and spent another stint in solitary confinement for taking part in a peaceful prison protest against the lack of medical care. Naghmeh pleaded his case to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
The Abedinis waited for President Obama to speak publicly about the case. In late September, they were informed that Obama called for Saeed's release in his first phone call to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
"It was a battle from the start," Naghmeh said of trying to get the administration involved. "Something they didn't want to get involved with. They wanted to focus on nuclear issues."
In November, Saeed was transferred from Evin prison to the violent Rajai Shahr Prison in Karaj, where his already fragile health took a turn for the worse. Near the end of the month, the P5+1 struck the interim nuclear agreement with Iran. None of the Americans being held in Iran -- Saeed, Amir Hekmati or Robert Levinson -- were included in negotiations.
"For my part, I was very disappointed to learn that the release of Idaho's own Pastor Saeed Abedini and other Americans, unjustly held by the regime, were not made part of the deal. I could not imagine a better confidence-building measure on Iran's part than for the regime to reflect some degree of humanity and principled justice by releasing these brave Americans," Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) said at a Dec. 12 Senate Banking Committee hearing on the nuclear agreement.
This February, Obama mentioned Saeed at the National Prayer Breakfast.
"We pray for Pastor Saeed Abedini. He’s been held in Iran for more than 18 months, sentenced to eight years in prison on charges relating to his Christian beliefs," Obama said. "And as we continue to work for his freedom, today, again, we call on the Iranian government to release Pastor Abedini so he can return to the loving arms of his wife and children in Idaho."
After having to gather hundreds of thousands of petition signatures to put pressure on the administration to say and do more, Naghmeh had mixed feelings listening to the president.
"Part of me was skeptical, thinking this is the arena where he just wants to get it over with and be done with it," she said, adding that she was "very happy" to hear her husband's case brought up at all. "It was better than not mentioning it."
"It's been complicated," she carefully said of the dance with the State Department and White House. "At times I've felt Saeed has been abandoned."
Saeed's parents have been able to visit him once a week. He had been in the hospital for two months when unexpectedly on May 20 he was beaten and taken back to prison.
He came out of the hospital "even doing worse than when he first arrived," with marked weight loss, weakness, and more signs of internal bleeding.
A State Department official told PJM on background Wednesday that the administration "remains dedicated to Saeed Abedini’s release from prison and safe return to his family."
The official noted Obama's phone call to Rouhani and prayer breakfast remarks and said Kerry has raised the case with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif "on several occasions," in addition to two public statements in 2013.
"We raise Mr. Abedini’s case, and those of Amir Hekmati and Robert Levinson, with Iranian officials on the sidelines of the P5+1 talks with Iran. It is the only issue we discuss with Iran outside of the nuclear issue," the official added. "We repeatedly have requested Iran to permit Mr. Abedini to receive any necessary medical treatment, and to grant Swiss officials, who serve as our protecting power, consular access to determine his well-being. We also repeatedly have called on Iran to release Mr. Abedini so that he may be reunited with his family."
Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) told PJM that the administration "should have never taken their hands off the money" and lifted part of the sanctions until Saeed was freed.
"I'm deeply, deeply disappointed," Risch said. "They sat across the table with the Iranians for weeks… these people wanted out from under these sanctions so badly."
When asked if Kerry had been in contact with the Idaho lawmaker about his constituent's case, Risch noted that he knows Kerry well from their shared time in the Senate -- and "that's all I'm going to say."
"It's very personal with me," the senator added. "I'm going to continue to give it all I've got."
In addition to home-state Sens. Risch and Crapo, Naghmeh has gained other vocal allies on the Hill including Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), as well as Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), who said the White House "must dedicate the necessary resources to secure the release and freedom of this American citizen."
Naghmeh appreciates how conservative politicians and pundits have taken up her husband's case, but stresses that it's an issue without party.
"This is not a political issue; this should be something both parties should jump on," she said. "Here's an American citizen who has not broken the law. He was encouraged to go back by the Iranian government. Christian gatherings are allowed by the Iranian government; that is not even breaking the law."
"This should be a bipartisan issue -- this is related to an American citizen being illegally held, being tortured and abused for his faith."
Risch said of Congress, "We're all pulling the wagon together on this -- there's no daylight."
"Long before we're partisans, we're Americans," he added. His resolution calling for the release of Abedini has Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) as one of 11 co-sponsors; Democrats backing a House version of the resolution include Chaka Fattah (Pa.), Brad Sherman (Calif.), and Henry Waxman (Calif.).
The senator advocates lots of prayer along with policy advocacy to help Saeed.
"No. 1, pray. No. 2, most Americans don't appreciate the freedoms that we have -- this man's crime is preaching Christianity. It underscores for us the kind of freedoms that we have," Risch said. "From my end, I'm going to keep pressure on the administration."
Naghmeh says Americans should contact their local government officials, even with just a short sentence or two on Saeed, and share the story on blogs and social media. "Keep the story alive to make sure he's not forgotten," she said.
"As a Christian, I believe in the power of prayer," she added.
Through the ups and downs of believing that each hospital transfer might mean another step closer to freedom for Saeed, only to be met with shoddy care, more beatings and more time behind bars, Naghmeh's own devastation is compounded by seeing "so much pain" in young Rebekka and Jacob.
"It's really a bigger part of a political game and he's a pawn," she said. "He hasn't broken any law. He got stuck in some kind of a political deal with Iran. He's illegally being held and tortured."
She quoted Martin Luther King, Jr.: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
"If we as Americans don't stand up," Naghmeh said, "it's something that will come back to us."
(TO HELP: Visit the Be Heard Project to sign a petition calling for Saeed's release, donate to the family's defense expenses, or write a letter to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Write President Obama and your House and Senate representatives. Use the hashtag #SaveSaeed on Twitter.)