NEW YORK—On Sept. 23 Naghmeh Abedini of Boise, Idaho, was in New York. She was there to press the United Nations General Assembly to seek the release of her husband, Pastor Saeed Abedini, who has languished as a prisoner of conscience in Iran’s Evin Prison for the last year. Right before checking into her hotel in New York she learned that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in town for the General Assembly, would also be staying there.
Before my scheduled interview with Naghmeh, the public relations firm handling her schedule called to move the interview elsewhere because security around the hotel was so tight. I happened to be in the lobby already, so we went ahead with the interview there, diplomats and bomb squads and security agents streaming around us.
As we sat talking in the hotel lobby, the leader of the government that is imprisoning Naghmeh’s husband unexpectedly walked into the room. Naghmeh paused for a second to collect herself, then grabbed a letter Saeed had written to the president and approached Rouhani, who was surrounded by his aides and American and Iranian agents. Rouhani stepped onto an elevator, but she went ahead and introduced herself to a member of his delegation who hadn’t gotten on the elevator.
In Farsi she said, “I’m the wife of Saeed Abedini, who you have in Evin Prison.” The aide registered shock. She told him it was important to give the letter to Rouhani. The aide said he would. She came back and sat in her chair, visibly unruffled but admitting she felt tense about encountering Iranian security. Naghmeh would never be granted an audience with anyone in the Iranian government (and women in Iran are almost always veiled or in full-length black chador), much less Rouhani’s delegation. The only explanation she can come up with for the encounter is that she had earnestly prayed for it.
Most days in Boise aren’t nearly so dramatic for Naghmeh, but they take a toll. After she has dropped her children off at school and she is driving home alone, Naghmeh, 36, sometimes asks herself what has happened to her life. Those quiet moments bring the overwhelming reality of her situation. Right now, she is effectively a single mother, and her husband Saeed may remain in Evin prison for the next seven years. He has not been allowed to have contact with his family. On Jan. 9, the last time they spoke, he called relatives in Iran, and they put his phone up to a phone with Naghmeh on the other line. She could barely hear him. Since then, they haven’t had contact except for the occasional letter.
While her husband has faced interrogations and beatings, Naghmeh has the trial of being the one who is left behind. She has two children, ages 7 and 5, to care for while constantly trying to stir up the sleepy U.S. government to help one of its own citizens unjustly imprisoned. She travels regularly, about two-thirds of the month, and her mother has given up her job to care for the children. The children travel with Naghmeh when they can. She missed 7-year-old Rebekka’s kindergarten graduation this year because she was at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland.
“I’ve had to tell myself this is a season of life,” she said. “If I look at the eight years, I’m heartbroken.”
Saeed used to have to beg Naghmeh to come on trips with him, because she had such anxiety about flying. Now she has to fly all the time, and each flight is still hard for her. “I walk into the airport and I think, here I am traveling and I hate traveling—and Saeed is in a prison and he loves traveling,” she said. She also hated public speaking but has now spoken before the United Nations, a congressional committee, churches, universities, and cable TV audiences. In May she pulled her Farsi out of the mothballs to do a live prime time interview for Voice of America in Iran, to an audience estimated in the millions. Because the interview was live, she was able to share the gospel on air without it being edited out.
“His imprisonment caused millions of Muslims to hear about Christ,” she said.
Naghmeh and Saeed Abedini are both Iranian-American. Naghmeh was born in the United States, while Saeed grew up in Iran as a Muslim, before his conversion to Christianity at age 20. Saeed became a leader in the underground house church movement in Iran and was arrested many times, but always released. He and Naghmeh met in Iran, married, and moved to the United States in 2005. The Iranians had barred him from church activities, so he became an U.S. citizen and a pastor in Boise, Idaho. The Abedinis traveled back to Iran from time to time to see Saeed’s family. In the past few years they have been involved in starting an orphanage near Saeed’s hometown, and all four of the Abedinis traveled to Iran to work on it together in 2011. In June 2012, Saeed went back to Iran by himself to continue work on the orphanage for a few months, a trip that Iran approved.
Despite the government approval, in September 2012 the Iranian police arrested Saeed, citing his earlier church work and saying he was a threat to national security. The police interrogated him and placed him in solitary confinement in the awful Evin Prison for four months. In January the government sentenced him to eight years in prison, forbidding him to speak to his wife and children for the duration of the sentence. In August, an Iranian court rejected his appeal for release or a reduced sentence. During his time in Evin Prison he has been beaten, suffered internal bleeding, and been denied medical attention. Naghmeh said one interrogator told her husband that he would make sure Saeed was hanged, and the police executed two fellow prisoners in front of him to intimidate him.
Two days after Naghmeh’s encounter with Rouhani, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour interviewed the Iranian president and asked him about releasing Saeed and another American, Amir Hekmati, who is imprisoned on charges of spying on Iran for the CIA. Rouhani demurred by saying he couldn’t interfere in the judicial process, but in the same breath indicated openness to a prisoner swap.
“This is a sort of mutual request. The U.S. government … must assist those Iranians, those people who are of Iranian citizenship who are in prison here, as we should assist those people who have American citizenships that are incarcerated in Iran,” Rouhani said, according to CNN’s translation.
The reputedly moderate Rouhani came into office this summer with promises of greater societal freedoms, but crackdowns against Christians have continued under his leadership. One example: eight Christians were convicted of threatening national security after police raided their prayer meeting. Naghmeh says Rouhani still has an opportunity to prove he is a moderate, but she’s not buying the story that Iran has turned a new leaf.
“The Iranian government has played this game many times—to have people calm down and the media back off,” she said. “The Christian convictions have increased. They continue to see Christianity as a threat.”
Until recently, Naghmeh has found meager support for Saeed’s release from her own government. Making a deal is complicated while the United States has no diplomatic relations with Iran, but the U.S. government has been successful in advocacy efforts with past prisoners who weren’t Americans—like Iranian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, released about the same time Saeed was arrested. Secretary of State John Kerry did finally call for Saeed’s release in March, but the administration didn’t comment for months. The State Department in September did issue a general call for Iran to release all “prisoners of conscience.”
Tiffany Barrans, the international legal director at the American Center for Law and Justice, has worked with Naghmeh to secure the release of her husband. Of all the international cases Barrans has worked on with the U.S. government, “this is the least I’ve ever seen them do,” she said. U.S. Ambassador for International Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson Cook has advocated for Saeed behind the scenes, but Cook’s office has little clout in the State Department, Barrans said. When Barrans meets with diplomats and their staff from other countries, they ask her, “Why haven’t we heard from the U.S. government on this?”
Then on Sept. 27 President Barack Obama made the first phone call from a U.S. president to an Iranian leader since 1979. In their 15-minute conversation, Obama and Rouhani focused on a resolution for Iran’s nuclear program. Obama also asked for the release of Saeed and Hekmati. A White House official recounted the call. Naghmeh said it was the most encouraging news since Saeed’s imprisonment.
On the first day of school this year Naghmeh tried to be upbeat, but she saw her daughter, Rebekka, 7, looking longingly at the dads bringing their children to school. The irony is not lost on Naghmeh that her children don’t have a father right now because he was working on an orphanage. Rebekka has lost all her teeth since her dad went to prison. Saeed has missed two of her birthdays, but he managed to get a letter to her on her 7th birthday this year.
“I was trying so hard to protect myself for you little ones. But the Iranian police lied to me that they would not arrest me. Please don’t let your little shoulders bear so much burden,” he wrote. “In this new year of your life I want you to stand strong as you have stood the previous year and be patient and endure.”
The hardest time for Naghmeh is bedtime, because Saeed always put the children to bed. Before they would go to sleep he would sing and pray with them. Naghmeh said sometimes the singing and praying would go on and on, and she would interrupt to say the kids had to go to sleep. Now he’s gone at bedtime, and she is depleted after doing everything for the kids from the moment they woke up. But Naghmeh has found them singing worship songs together or praying, entirely on their own initiative.
“Since I was pregnant with them we prayed for that,” she said.
Fulfilling one of Saeed’s wishes, Naghmeh speaks Farsi at home with her children. Five-year-old Jacob’s middle name is Cyrus, for the ancient Persian king whose famous decree established religious freedom in the Middle East and allowed the Jewish exiles to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. The Abedinis chose the name hoping both of their children “would be a powerful tool for God for the Middle East.”