Two years ago, in June of 2012, Naghmeh Abedini said goodbye to her husband as he caught a flight to Iran to visit family and finalize some things at an orphanage he had built. She didn’t know it would be the last time she would see him.
One month later, when he was supposed to be boarding a plane back to the U.S., Naghmeh received a call saying that his passport had been taken. When he followed up with the Iranian government, he was told they had some questions for him. They put him under house arrest until, early one morning in September, five revolutionary guards came and took him to Evin Prison, where he was put into solitary confinement.
Saeed Abedini, an American citizen, has been imprisoned, beaten, and tortured for two years. His crime? He is a Christian.
Advertisement – story continues below
(Officially, Saeed was charged with undermining the national security of Iran because he had gathered with other Christians. However, the peaceful gathering of religious minorities is a legal act in Iran and protected under their constitution.)
Since his arrest, Naghmeh has traveled all over the world, pleading with those in positions of political power to help her husband. She has spoken in front of Congress, the United Nations, and the European Union, and has been interviewed on networks such as Fox News and CNN. Still, Saeed remains in prison.
Despite some international support, including the assertion by the UN that Saeed deserves compensation from Iran for every day he is illegally imprisoned, Naghmeh has not felt much from her own government. She has reached out to President Obama, Hillary Clinton (while she was in office), and John Kerry; but there was no action taken while Clinton was in office and, while Kerry has made some statements, and Obama spoke about Saeed at the 2014 National Prayer Breakfast, none of them have ever reached out to Naghmeh personally.
Advertisement - story continues below
In fact, several government officials who have been pushing for Saeed’s release have been told to back down and let the administration handle things. Naghmeh thinks this is because the administration is trying to use all of their leverage with Iran for their nuclear negotiations. She does not believe, however, that the U.S. needs to use much leverage:
“The European Union, the UN, the whole world is saying that Saeed is being held illegally. He hasn’t broken any law. And [the U.S. administration is] dealing with Iran and releasing billions of dollars. The U.S. could have said, when they sat down with Iran, ‘Release this pastor’, before we even started negotiations.”
Instead, besides those few statements, the U.S. government has largely ignored Saeed’s plight.
“As an American citizen, I want them to fight for me,” Naghmeh says. “When I heard that they were telling people to back off, I was really frustrated, really heartbroken over it. It really made me question, is my government fighting for me? Is my government fighting for Saeed?”
Naghmeh cannot understand why the administration has been ignoring her. She compares Saeed’s situation to that of Michael Sam, the first openly gay man to be drafted to the NFL. When Sam was drafted, the White House released a statement from President Obama congratulating the player on his achievement.
Naghmeh remembers “hearing that President Obama called [Sam] when he came out, saying that he’s proud of him for standing up for what he believes. And I’m thinking, ‘Here’s my husband standing up for what he believes in, in the midst of evil, because he’s a Christian. Isn’t our government proud of him for standing up for his Christian faith? Why is it so hard to get a call from them?’ It did make me wonder if this is even an important issue for them. Because I know that on issues that are important to them, they do call.”
The administration’s resistance especially astounds her because she does not see her husband’s situation as a political issue. “It’s not a Democratic issue. It’s not a Republican issue,” she says. “It’s a human rights issue.”
Advertisement - story continues below
Despite disappointment in the administration, however, Naghmeh refuses to badmouth her leaders. Her desire is for unity in support of Saeed, not hatred or division.
“Saeed’s issue is a religious freedom issue. There’s really no dividing line. It’s a human rights issue that both parties should be on board, fighting for. It’s a core value of our nation. There’s division on ethical issues that divide our country, but this could be something that unites our country.”
Her friend, Katie Wilson, summed up their feelings on the matter:
“This situation is not an invitation to attack those we feel are at fault. It is a call for us to come together, inviting each other to faithfully protect the beating heart of religious freedom, without which our country has no pulse.”
In fact, Naghmeh insists that “if [the administration does] step up, I’ll be the first to praise them. If they do take action, I’ll be the first to thank them for it.”
Naghmeh is a woman of strength and grace, but she admits that it is hard to hold on to hope. In the first year of Saeed’s imprisonment, there were a lot of doors she hadn’t knocked on; but, “now that the two year anniversary is over, I feel like every door has been knocked at and he’s still not home.”
She attributes the strength she does have to her faith in God, insisting that “God is in control and we’ve just got to trust Him – no matter the outcome, no matter the time.” She tries to teach her children to allow every hardship to draw them closer to God, “but it’s been hard. It’s been painful – the pain is there. You can’t say it’s not there.”
Ultimately, if Saeed is to be released, it will take continued pressure on both the U.S. and Iranian governments.
Advertisement - story continues below
In the U.S., that means calls and emails to senators, congressmen, governors, and the president – anyone who is in a position of power. Naghmeh encourages those she speaks with to realize they do have a voice:
“We’re all voters, and ultimately our government does care about our votes. A lot of times – and I believed in this lie, too – I didn’t think my emails or my phone calls to my local government officials made any difference. And they do… [We need to] wake up and take the time to go vote. Send those emails to our government officials and say, ‘I care about this issue. I care about religious freedom issues’… Make those phone calls. Don’t think you’re just one person and you don’t count. It does make a difference.”
In regard to the Iranian government, the U.S. will need to hit them where it hurts. Naghmeh insists it will take more than statements:
“There’ve been a lot of statements, but it doesn’t do anything. Iran can read through that. It has to hurt them… How did we bring Iran to the table to talk about nuclear issues? Pressure. It wasn’t nice diplomacy. It was hard pressure of sanctions to make Iran say, ‘Ok. Let’s talk about our nuclear stuff.’ They don’t like America. Nothing’s going to change – that’s just their mentality. And they don’t want to release Saeed… It has to hurt somewhere.”
By letting Iran continue to hold Saeed, Naghmeh believes the U.S. has lost credibility in the Middle East. Middle Eastern culture “is different. They really do pick up on how serious you are about certain things.”
“Insisting on the release of Saeed would not be a use of America’s leverage. It would be a demonstration of leverage. By not insisting on Saeed’s release, it it actually a relinquishing of America’s leverage.”
It is time for Americans to raise their voices in unity for freedom and justice for Saeed and the many others who face religious persecution around the world. Emailing and calling your representatives and leaders will spur them to take on this issue and encourage those who have been told to back down to continue on with this fight. In an era where our country seems to be split down the middle, this is a cause that could unite us all.
Please share on Facebook if you agree that the United States should take a stand for Saeed Abedini and religious freedom.
Photo Credit: YouTube
What do you think? Scroll down to comment below.