At the recent National Prayer Breakfast, President Obama championed the cause of an Idaho pastor held in Iran for more than a year. “We pray for Pastor Saeed Abedini,” Obama said. “He’s been held in Iran for more than 18 months, sentenced to eight years in prison on charges related to his Christian beliefs.”

Obama speaks to the National Prayer Breakfast (White House photo)

Obama speaks to the National Prayer Breakfast (White House photo)

But why now? Why is Obama speaking after being silent for a year and a half? And will he follow up his words with actions?

An American citizen, Abedini is a lay missionary from Calvary Chapel in Boise, Idaho. Hs was jailed in notorious Evin Prison in July 2012, then sentenced by Judge Abbas Pir-Abassi Abedini to eight years in prison for having “undermined the Iranian government by creating a network of Christian house churches and attempting to sway Iranian youth away from Islam.”

Pastor Saeed in Tehran (family photo)

Pastor Saeed in Tehran (family photo)

Christians in Iran suffer severe discrimination. A court in the city of Rasht recently sentenced four church members to 80 lashes each for participating in a communion service. They were convicted of sipping wine while participating – violating Islam’s ban on alcohol.

In officially Muslim Iran, converts to Christianity are barred by law from worshipping with other Christians, which has led to the widespread growth of “house” or “underground” churches, according to Open Doors International. Abedini is credited with establishing about 100 such home-based congregations with more than 2,000 members in 30 Iranian cities.

In July 2012, he was dragged off of a bus in Iran and charged with compromising national security, though no specific allegations were given. The last 18 months have been a nightmare. Recently he was robbed at knifepoint at Iran’s Rajai Shahr prison, the American Center for Law and Justice reports, sparking further fears for his life.

“Pastor Saeed is facing constant threats to his very life in the new prison,” reported ACLJ Executive Director Jordan Sekulow. “There have been several nights where he has awoken to men standing over him with knives. Pastor Saeed’s ‘cell’ is only separated by a curtain from the rest of the violent prisoner ward he is forced to share, allowing dangerous prisoners – murderers and rapists – unfettered access to him 24 hours a day. He has also been robbed at knifepoint several times, stripping him of what few necessities he has been permitted to purchase for personal hygiene.”

“As a result of the deplorable conditions in prison and the lack of doctor-prescribed medication, the pastor’s health has deteriorated,” reported Stoyan Zaimov, in the Christian Post. “His condition had been improving back at Evin prison, where he began serving his eight-year sentence for his Christian faith, but now at Rajai Shahr he is being denied the medical attention that he needs.”

Sekulow’s ACLJ has campaigned steadily on the pastor’s behalf and has led a global effort calling for his release – calling on Obama to intervene. But until the prayer breakfast remarks, there had been silence from the White House.

“It’s a shame there weren’t any mirrors in the ballroom of the Washington Hilton when President Obama spoke at yesterday’s National Prayer Breakfast,” said the Family Research Council’s

Tony Perkins. “He might have been forced to look into one when he spoke about the value of religious liberty, life, and human dignity.

A prayer group seeking God's help for Pastor Saeed (family photo)

A prayer group seeking God’s help for Pastor Saeed (family photo)

“For the 3,500 in the audience,” said Perkins, “the President’s remarks seemed almost surreal in the context of his five-year war on the same values he implored the crowd to defend.