WASHINGTON—Congressional leaders on Friday called for U.S. State Department action on behalf of Iranian-American pastor Saeed Abedini and other religious minorities facing increasing persecution in Iran.
The Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission held a rare Friday hearing on Capitol Hill and listened to an emotional plea from Abedini’s wife, Naghmeh, for her husband’s safe return to the United States. About 100 people, many of them standing, filled the hearing room, while others were turned away at the door due to space limitations.
“They told me that a lot of times these meetings are pretty empty,” Naghmeh Abedini told me after the hearing. “To see this many people coming and being encouraging … I was blessed to be here and see that.”
Saeed Abedini was first arrested in 2009 for participating in Iran’s growing house church movement and agreed with Iranian authorities to cease such activities—an agreement his wife said he has kept faithfully. Authorities gave him permission to start an orphanage, but when he went back to Iran to work on the project last year, he was arrested for his work with house churches from 2000 to 2005.
An Iranian judge, whom the UN has named a perpetual human-rights abuser, sentenced Abedini in January to eight years in Evin Prison—a notoriously brutal complex northwest of Tehran. Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which represents the Abedinis, told the commission there are “constant public hangings” outside the prison.
Naghmeh Abedini showed the commission photos of her family and brought the U.S. flag—given by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich.—that was flown over the Capitol when her husband received his U.S. citizenship in 2010.
Several people in the audience could be seen wiping tears as Abedini told the commission that her children, ages 5 and 7, ask where their father is and if he still loves them. She said she has assured them that he does love them, and he’s in prison because he loves Jesus. “The kids don’t know about the eight-year sentence,” she said.
Abedini, who converted to Christianity from Islam a year after arriving in the United States in 1986, said she is disappointed in her government.
“Our family needs your help,” she said as the room erupted in applause at the close of her remarks.
Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., said the “U.S. State Department, under John Kerry, should be utterly ashamed” for not taking action on Saeed Abedini’s behalf. Several members and witnesses noted that the United States has done much more for Iranian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, who is not an American citizen, than for Abedini.
“A U.S. citizen being regularly beaten and tortured deserves to be defended,” Sekulow said, adding that a petition calling for Abedini’s release has garnered more than 512,000 signatures. He called it “inexcusable” and “offensive” that the State Department “snubbed” the commission by failing to appear when invited.
On Thursday, moments before she boarded a plane for Washington, D.C., Naghmeh Abedini received a call from a State Department official who blamed her for not asking the State Department to advocate for her husband’s release—even though the agency was informed within two days of Abedini’s arrest last July. She has also been engaged in a high-profile campaign to secure her husband’s release, including the promotion of a “#SaveSaeed” hashtag on Twitter.
Reps. Frank Wolf, R-Va., Chris Smith, R-N.J., Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., and Raúl Labrador, R-Idaho, also participated in the proceeding. Wolf, the commission’s co-chair, became emotional when he closed the hearing with a promise to Naghmeh Abedini: “The commission will stay with this until Saeed is released.”
Wolf said his office had been in contact with Secretary of State John Kerry’s office Friday morning and they were trying to arrange a meeting before Naghmeh Abedini returned to her home in Boise, Idaho.
The hearing also discussed persecution of other religious minorities in Iran, including Jews and Baha’is, of which more than 500 have been arbitrarily arrested since 2005. The State Department has named Iran a “country of particular concern” every year since 1999, but conditions have grown significantly worse since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was reelected as president in 2009.
UPDATE: Later Friday, the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) released the following statement:
“Naghmeh Abedini, along with ACLJ chief counsel Jay Sekulow and ACLJ executive director Jordan Sekulow, met with several State Department officials this afternoon. In that meeting they made the case that they presented at the hearing today: The State Department needs to fully engage—Secretary [John] Kerry needs to become personally involved—to speak out and stand up for Pastor Saeed Abedini—a U.S. citizen—who is facing life-threatening treatment in an Iranian prison simply because of his Christian faith.”