For the past four months, 32-year-old Iranian-American pastor Saeed Abedini has languished in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison on national security charges for leading the underground house-church movement. On Jan. 21, he appeared before a revolutionary court judge to face allegations that he swayed the minds of Iranian youth by turning them away from Islam to Christianity. At the time this story went to press, his verdict had not been released.
While the wheels of justice—or injustice—turn in Iran, Abedini’s wife Naghmeh is across the globe in Idaho, taking care of their two young children and working with the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) to bring her husband home. The U.S. Department of State has yet to take any action to release the U.S. citizen, and only asked that Iranian officials give him a fair trial in January, three months after U.S. officials first learned of the case.
But nothing about the case has been fair: Officials raided the Abedini family house in Iran, took Abedini, and did not let him see his lawyer or know his formal charges until a week before the trial. He faced Judge Abbas Pirabbasi, who is known internationally as the “hanging judge” for all the political prisoners he has sent to the gallows.
Interrogators may believe they have made a big catch with Abedini. He grew up a devout Muslim and trained to become a suicide bomber. At the age of 20, he was on his way to murder a pastor when two Christians shared the gospel with him and prayed for him, according to a testimony Abedini wrote in Idaho’s Intermountain Christian News. He decided not to carry out the assassination, and over the next few weeks accepted Christ as his Savior. He then started evangelizing to Muslims, helping to form an underground house-church movement in Iran.
While Iran recognizes Christianity as an official religion, the Islamic republic does not allow former Muslims to attend churches. “Historic” churches are allowed to remain open for the most part, but converts from Islam face the death penalty. And the law prohibits Protestant pastors from preaching in Farsi, the leading language.
When Naghmeh first met Abedini in Iran in 2002, he was the leader of about 150 college-aged Iranian Christians in Tehran. She said that by 2005, the number had grown to about 2,000 people with house churches in 30 cities. Authorities arrested and imprisoned Abedini many times, but always set him free.
Abedini and Naghmeh married in 2004 and the two moved to the United States a year later due to increased persecution. Abedini became a U.S. citizen in 2010. On a trip back to Iran in 2009, government officials detained Abedini and forced him to sign an agreement saying he could enter and exit the country freely as long as he stopped working with the house churches.
Abedini continued traveling to Iran to build a nonsectarian orphanage and to visit his family there. In July, on Abedini’s ninth trip back to Iran, officials stopped him as he re-entered the country on a bus at the Iran-Turkey border and detained him for interrogation. They took his passport and a day later released him to his parents’ home, where they told him to wait until he received a call about his trial date.
At the time Naghmeh assumed he would just spend a few days in court. But two months later officials raided his family’s house at 5 a.m., confiscating religious material, the deed to the house, financial documents, and Abedini. For the next four days, no one knew his whereabouts.
Abedini’s parents worried that they would be taken as well and asked Naghmeh to call them every day.
“It was one of the worst weeks of my life,” Naghmeh recalled. “My kids were used to seeing him on the computer through Skype, and I had to hold in my emotions when they asked, ‘Where is daddy? Why can’t I see him?’”
After four days, Naghmeh called the family’s landline–which she knew was tapped–and threatened to talk to the media unless the government told her Abedini’s whereabouts. Within an hour, the government revealed that Abedini was in solitary confinement in Evin prison.
At the time, Tiffany Barrans, ACLJ’s international legal director, contacted the State Department for help. But officials there came up with “many excuses,” she said, about why they couldn’t help: The United States doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Iran. Iran doesn’t recognize Abedini’s dual citizenship. Americans in another country need to follow that country’s laws.
“In this instance he didn’t break any law, he was just exercising his religious liberty,” Barrans said. Barrans knew that the United States could pressure Iran without formal relations as they had done with imprisoned American hikers a few years ago. But nothing happened.
Less than a week before the trial, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom labeled the charges against Abedini “bogus” and asserted they were used “to suppress religious belief and activity of which the Iranian government does not approve.”
Through brief phone calls with Abedini, Naghmeh learned that he had been beaten by interrogators and cellmates who say they are members of al-Qaeda. Guards promised to let him see his family through Skype on Christmas, “but it was a game to play on his emotions,” Naghmeh said. “They took away the hope and then threaten him with death.”
Iranian officials offered bail twice, first for 150 million Iranian rial (about $12,000), then for 500 million (about $41,000). Both times the family prepared bail documents, but the government refused to accept them.
A week before the trial, officials finally let Abedini meet with his attorney and told him the charges. During the trial, the court presented photos, videos, and documents of Abedini’s work in the house-church movement since his conversion in 2000. His lawyer, a Muslim who believes in the human-rights merits of the case, argued that Abedini’s activities were motivated by his faith rather than a political agenda.
Naghmeh told me she is shocked that her husband is facing serious charges now, rather than when he was actively leading the church movement. She said it represents an increasing hostility toward Christians in Iran. In the past two years, Iranian officials have arrested at least 300 Christians.
“Right now it’s a very uncertain time not knowing what the future holds with the trial,” Naghmeh said. “It’s been very hard waiting, but it’s been a good time of trusting God through this.”
Repeated news reports in January said Abedini was being released by Iranian authorities. Naghmeh remained skeptical: “This is all a lie by the Iranian media. This has been a repeated promise by the Iranian regime since Saeed was first thrown in prison on Sept. 26, 2012.”