WASHINGTON — Religious-freedom advocates voiced gratitude and joy at the release of Christian pastor Saeed Abedini, a U.S. citizen who had been held in an Iranian prison since 2012.

Abedini was among the three American citizens freed as part of the U.S.-Iran prisoner exchange over the weekend. 

“This is a major victory. We are incredibly grateful to the more than 1.1 million people who have joined us in fighting across the globe for Pastor Saeed’s freedom,” said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), in a Jan. 16 statement.

The ACLJ had for years been advocating for Pastor Abedini’s freedom from Iran by organizing prayer vigils, collecting signatures for petitions and sending letters to the United Nations and Congress. 

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 is also an American citizen.

After his conversion to Christianity, Abedini began working with house churches in Iran, which, though technically legal, drew complaints from the government. He then 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 served more than three.

Religious-freedom advocates had argued that the arrest was actually due to his Christian faith.

During the time that he served in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison, the pastor was beaten and denied proper medical treatment, according to reports. 

“This has been an answer to prayer,” Naghmeh Abedini said of her husband’s release. “This is a critical time for me and my family. We look forward to Saeed's return and want to thank the millions of people who have stood with us in prayer during this most difficult time.” 

Naghmeh had spoken numerous times about the toll that her husband’s imprisonment had been taking on their family. She lives in Idaho with the couple’s two young children.

In November 2015, Naghmeh ended her public advocacy for her husband’s freedom, citing marital problems and abuse, which she said got even worse during his imprisonment, as they were able to communicate via Skype. 

In two emails to her supporters, she said she had suffered “physical, emotional, psychological and sexual abuse (through Saeed’s addiction to pornography)” at the hands of her husband, Christianity Today reported.

However, when she learned that her husband would be one of the men freed in the prisoner exchange, she took to Twitter to thank President Barack Obama “for all the hard work and support in bringing Saeed home” after a phone call with the White House.

In addition to Abedini, Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, who was arrested a year and a half ago, and U.S. Marine veteran Amir Hekmati, who was arrested in 2011 while visiting his grandmother, were also released, along with Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari, who chose to remain in Iran. A student named Matthew Trevithick was also released and had already left the country, but not as part of the exchange deal. 

In return for their freedom, the U.S. pardoned or commuted the sentences of seven men: six dual citizens and one Iranian citizen. 

Former FBI agent and CIA contractor Robert Levinson, who went missing in Iran in 2007, was also brought up during negotiations, though Iran has denied detaining him. According to Secretary of State John Kerry on Twitter, “Iran has agreed to deepen our coordination as we work to locate Robert Levinson.”

These releases were the result of more than a year of secret talks between the U.S. and Iran in the midst of the nuclear deal struck between the two countries.

As CNN reported, Kerry said that the exchange was “accelerated” by the deal.