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Naghmeh Abedini
Katherine Jones/Idaho Statesman/MCT/Landov
Naghmeh Abedini

A long way from Tehran

Iran | Naghmeh Abedini and her two children face daily life in Idaho without her unjustly imprisoned husband Saeed

Issue: "Rethinking the death penalty," Oct. 19, 2013

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.

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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.

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