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)
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)
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)
“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.”
“We believe each of us is wonderfully made in the image of God,” Obama told the crowd. “We believe in the inherent dignity of every person. No society can truly succeed unless it guarantees the rights of all its people.”
“For the first time in months, the President did acknowledge the plight of Christian Pastor Abedini, an Iranian-turned-U.S.-citizen, who’s been brutalized in prison for 18 months while his wife begs for his release on Capitol Hill,” noted Perkins.
“And as we continue to work for his freedom,” said Obama, “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.”
“While the President’s words still hung in the air yesterday,” observed Perkins, the “Pew Research Center announced for the sixth consecutive year that Christians are the most oppressed religious group in the world. Believers in 110 countries were harassed for their faith — a number that’s steadily climbed since Pew started its analysis in 2008. The United States wasn’t one of the countries, but if the President’s policies are any indication, the odds are increasing every day.”
Obama’s words don’t match his actions, charged Perkins.
“‘Freedom of religion is under threat around the world,’ President Obama warned,” Perkins noted. “When President Obama highlights religious freedom, as he did, he is doing so as the leader of the most oppressive administration in American history. While he praises religious freedom as a ‘universal right,’ more than 90 plaintiffs are in court, fighting the White House over the loss of it under Obamacare.
“While he insists that human dignity cannot survive without ‘the right of every person to practice their faith how they choose,’ millions of suffering Christians around the world beg the U.S. to intervene on their behalf.
“While he condemns the people who would use religion to hurt others because of ‘who they love,’ the government is forcing Christian businesses to close if they won’t participate in same-sex ‘weddings.’
“While he sends our troops into harm’s way to defend this rich legacy, thousands of service members are too worried about the backlash to exercise it themselves.
“From the comfort of a hotel ballroom, the President insists he has called out world leaders to do more to respect human rights. Yet when Congress pleads with the White House to intervene on behalf of the persecuted church in Iraq, Nigeria, China, Egypt, or Kenya after suicide bombers destroy churches and families, the response from the White House is always the same: silence.”
Pastor Saeed with his wife, Naghmeh and children, Rebekah and Jacob (family photo)
Recently, the ACLJ criticized the U.S. government for releasing an Iranian nuclear scientist as part of negotiation talks with the Islamic Republic, while failing to strike a deal for Abedini’s release.
“This is betrayal,” said ACLJ chief counsel Jay Sekulow. “A betrayal because not only did they not get the release of the three Americans, but they said they are working on this ‘on the margins.’ Our citizens are on the margins and then we are releasing an
Iranian convicted on working on the nuclear issue.”
Sekulow noted that Abedini recently sustained injuries after repeated beatings inside Evin prison, which caused internal bleeding and pain in his stomach and kidneys. Poor hygiene conditions in the current prison are also causing Abedini to suffer from lice, and he is experiencing symptoms of recurring urinary tract infection and significant joint pain.
“The conditions he faces are unfathomable. He faces direct threats to his life on an almost daily basis,” Sekulow said. “We must not forget Pastor Saeed. We must take action now,” he stressed, noting that Iran has sent the pastor to Rajai Shahr to ‘disappear.’ “The time is now to pressure Iran for his release. Each day could be his last.”
And so, Obama has taken up Saeed’s cause – at least by mentioning him in front of a predominantly Christian audience.
“Speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., President Obama focused on religious freedom in other countries, saying that it matters to national security at home and plays a prominent role in the country’s foreign policy,” reported the Townhall Tipsheet.
“Around the world, freedom of religion is under threat, and that is what I want to reflect on this morning,” the president told the audience. “We see governments engaging in discriminating and violence against the faith. We sometimes see religion twisted in an attempt to justify hatred and persecution against other people just because of who they are, how they pray, or who they love.”
The Tipsheet added: “Testifying before Congress in December, Abedini’s wife, Naghmeh, said that she never expected she’d have to battle her own government for her husband’s freedom. She was thankful, however, that Obama discussed her husband’s case publicly."
In December, Congressmen Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) co-chaired a joint subcommittee hearing on Pastor Saeed’s situation. “The dangers that Saeed faces in the brutal prison are real and it is crucial that the American people and the American government remain fully engaged to see this father and husband brought home to his family,” noted International Christian Concern, reporting on the hearing.
On Martin Luther King Day, little Rebekah and a friend told of their dream (family photo)
“Saeed’s case must be front and center in the next series of diplomatic talks with Iran,” said Congressman Smith in his opening remarks. “Time is running out. Naghmeh, Jacob, and Rebekka need their husband and father home. Now!”
“We must judge the Iranian regime, not on words, but on actions,” agreed Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen. “On the campaign trail they promised reforms on human rights, but these have not happened.”
“If they cannot release individuals and others held without due process then how are we to trust them on greater issues?” asked Congressman Mark Meadows (R-NC).
“The number of Christians and Bahais imprisoned” during recently elected President Rouhani’s “short tenure has increased, testified Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett, vice-chair of the United States Commission on
International Religious Freedom, “and there has been a crackdown on Protestant Christians.”
Naghmeh on TV appealing for Saeed’s release (Fox News screen capture)
“It is imperative that the United States government continue to press for the release of Saeed,” said International Christian Concern. “There can be no more ‘missed opportunities’ such as the latest rounds of negotiations in Geneva where Naghmeh said, “I felt abandoned as an American citizen that Saeed’s release was not a pre-condition for negotiations.”
Naghmeh “describes herself as a normal, everyday mom. But for the past year and a half, her life has been anything but normal,” reports CBN News. “The life she and her family have led can only be described as extraordinary. “After the hearing, she spoke about the ordeal, sharing how the struggle has affected the family and strengthened her faith in God.
“I’m sure anyone going through any trial, it’s just reassuring to know there are people standing with you. And really this hearing today was one of those moments where I knew I wasn’t alone,” she told reporters.
“Naghmeh made the trek from their home in Idaho to testify on Capitol Hill, telling lawmakers she feels forsaken by her own government, which failed to demand her husband’s release as part of the recently brokered nuclear deal with Tehran,” reported CBN.
“I was hoping with all my heart that our government would not abandon him,” she said.
Naghmeh with the kids (famly photo)
“But in the end she felt it did, putting human rights and religious freedom on a back burner not only for Iran, but for all the world to see.
“For Naghmeh, the government’s failure to speak up reminded her of one of Jesus’ parables,” reported CBN. “‘I was reminded today it’s like leaving the 99 sheep and going after the one — that’s the heart of God. He cares about that one person — that He’s the God of justice for a nation, but also for one person,’ she said.
“‘And I pray that God gives whomever, be it President Obama or Secretary of State John Kerry or whoever it is around them making that decision, that they would get the heart of God,’ she said.
“‘What we’ve started doing is set an empty place for Saeed for celebrations to remember him, remembering him, praying for him,’ she said.
An empty place at the Abedini table (family photo)
“Through it all, Naghmeh has been encouraged by the prayers and support of fellow believers and human rights advocates.
“She said she’s been equally surprised that
they, in turn, have been encouraged by her strength.
Naghmeh Abedini (family photo)
“‘I hope people can see you can cling to the Lord and just be okay with whatever happens in your life and just have that peace and joy,’ she said.
“‘And I hope people see that and they see that it’s not me,’ she said. ‘When they say, ‘You’re a strong person,’ I really want to say, ‘I hope you see Jesus in this, because I’m not a strong person.’‘’