WASHINGTON — A U.S. citizen imprisoned in Iran for his Christian faith could face execution if the government is not pressured to release him, warned an international religious-freedom advocacy group.
“As more individuals and governments around the world take notice of Pastor Saeed’s case, the pressure on Iran to release him and stop violating religious liberty will increase,” said Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the Washington-based American Center for Law and Justice.
In a Jan. 14 post on the law center’s website, Sekulow explained that immediate action is essential, “as the Iranian regime is clearly bent on rushing through a sham trial that leaves counsel unprepared and in the dark about the nature of the charges against their client.”
Pastor Saeed Abedini, 32, is a U.S. citizen who initially invoked the anger of the Iranian government by helping start house churches after converting from Islam to Christianity.
However, the two parties arrived at an agreement in 2009, allowing the pastor to travel freely in the country if he stopped working with the underground churches. He instead turned his focus toward humanitarian efforts with non-religious orphanages.
Nevertheless, the pastor was arrested in September during a trip to work with those orphanages and visit family, the American Center for Law and Justice said, and he has been imprisoned illegally for more than three months.
Now, Sekulow warned, Abedini is scheduled to go on trial before one of Iran’s most notorious “hanging judges.”
He explained that Abedini’s lawyer was permitted to see the court file only one week before the Jan. 21 court date. The only charges that the attorney could decipher dated back to 2000, the year of the pastor’s conversion to Christianity.
“The supposed charge levied against him, actions against the national security of Iran, is a typical charged brought by the radical Islamic regime against those it wishes to persecute for their religious beliefs,” Sekulow said, adding that the court file “indicated that this national-security charge was directly related to his work starting a house-church movement in Iran.”
In a recent letter, Abedini said that he has been beaten and told that he “will hang” for his “faith in Jesus.”
The American Center for Law and Justice has been working to raise awareness of the pastor’s plight.
The U.S. State Department has expressed “serious concerns” about the plight of Abedini.
During a Jan. 11 press briefing, department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland acknowledged that the pastor was arrested over three months ago “on charges related to his religious beliefs.”
“We understand that a hearing will be held soon,” she said, “and we call on Iranian officials to respect Iran’s own laws and provide Mr. Abedini access to an attorney.”
The American Center for Law and Justice welcomed the statement as a “great first step,” but lamented that the State Department did not go as far as calling for the pastor’s immediate release.
The group also urged President Barack Obama to speak out against Abedini’s imprisonment. On Jan. 15, White House spokesman Jay Carney said he did currently not have a statement on the situation.
Sekulow and his organization have emphasized that efforts to raise awareness in the global community are key to keeping the pastor alive. They credit international pressure fueled by media attention for the recent release of another Iranian pastor, Yousef Nadarkhani, who had spent three years in prison and was sentenced to death for converting to Christianity.
Now, the law center has launched a petition, signed by more than 100,000 Americans so far, to call for U.S. government intervention on behalf of Abedini.
Congressional efforts to advocate for the pastor are also under way, with letters calling for his freedom introduced in both the House and the Senate.
In addition, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom denounced Abedini’s continued imprisonment.
The commission's chair, Katrina Lantos Swett, called the national-security charges “bogus” and “a typical tactic” by the Iranian government to suppress religious beliefs it dislikes.
The commission called on the government of Iran “to release Mr. Abedini immediately and unconditionally.”