WASHINGTON — Advocates pushing for the U.S. State Department to demand the release of Christian pastor Saeed Abedini — a U.S. citizen imprisoned in Iran — remained hopeful after Iranian nuclear talks were extended for six months.
“I think it’s important to note that Pastor Saeed wasn’t completely abandoned,” said Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ). “We remain hopeful that, because the talks continue and the dialogue continues, Saeed hasn’t been forgotten, that he wasn’t abandoned to the nuclear talks, and that was important to us.”
The ACLJ is among those pushing for the Obama administration to demand Abedini’s release before coming to any nuclear agreement with Iran.
Born and raised as a Muslim in Iran, Abedini converted to Christianity in 2000, becoming an American citizen in 2010 following his marriage to his wife Naghmeh, who also is an American citizen.
After his conversion to Christianity, Abedini began working with house churches in Iran. Although his work was technically legal, it drew complaints from the government, and he agreed to shift his work towards non-religious humanitarian efforts.
While visiting non-religious orphanages in September 2012, Pastor Abedini was arrested on charges of threatening national security. He was sentenced to eight years in prison; he has now served two years.
Human-rights groups following the case have claimed that the true reason for the imprisonment was the pastor’s Christian faith and his conversion away from Islam.
Both the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and President Barack Obama have called on the Iranian government to release the pastor.
Advocates of Abedini’s release were watching last week’s deadline for a deal on Iran’s nuclear program. It was announced instead that the talks would be extended for another six months, but Sekulow emphasized that was no setback.
“That’s been a key part of our campaign: Don’t reach a final deal with Iran without getting Pastor Saeed home,” he told EWTN News.
Since his imprisonment, Abedini has been subject to beatings, torture, interrogation and solitary confinement. His health deteriorated to the point where the Iranian government hospitalized him, but he was returned to prison without proper corrective care for his internal-bleeding condition, according to the ACLJ, which has been working with his wife in the United States.
Sekulow said that the pastor’s fellow prisoners have also posed a threat to him, including members of the Islamic State terror group, who have threatened his life.
Members of Congress and religious figures are also pushing for Abedini’s release. Rep. Bob Pittenger, R-N.C., hosted a closed-door meeting on Capitol Hill on Nov. 18, where members of Congress met with Abedini’s wife and the apostolic nuncio to the United States. A staff member confirmed that approximately 20 members of Congress attended.
In addition, the House passed a resolution last week condemning the Iranian government for human-rights abuses, in particular the spike in executions under the Hassan Rouhani regime and the persecution of religious minorities.
The administration has been careful not to make Abedini’s release part of an official nuclear agreement with Iran, but talks have been occurring on the “sidelines,” Sekulow said, also noting the unprecedented nature of the current face-to-face negotiations between the U.S. and Iran, which “haven’t existed in 39 years.”
Even though the official talks have been purely about a nuclear agreement and not Abedini’s release, the two are hard to separate, Sekulow insisted.
“So long as we are negotiating with them on something so important as a nuclear program,” he noted, “when they’re holding our citizen for being a Christian and not being charged with any other crime that’s unrelated to his work with the Christian community, we can’t be naïve and act as if they’d be totally separated. So I think the U.S. government can do more.”