WASHINGTON (RNS) -- Religious freedom activists scolded the U.S. State Department for not appearing at a hearing Friday (March 15) on Iran's treatment of religious minorities, and called for greater government action to secure the release of people imprisoned there for their faith.
"The State Department is AWOL -- they are absent without leave," complained Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative law firm that represents the wife of Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-American minister in Tehran's Evin prison.
"They act as if they are embarrassed about Mr. Abedini's faith."
In comparison, he said, members of the European Union have called at the United Nations for Abedini's release.
Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., a member of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, which held the hearing on Capitol Hill, criticized the State Department for "such a deafening and almost cowardly silence" about the case.
Evan Owen, a press officer with the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, said department officials who focus on Iran had "scheduling conflicts" on Friday, but Suzan Johnson Cook, ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, and other officials were scheduled to meet with Naghmeh Abedini Friday afternoon.
"We believe we are doing everything we can publicly and privately," Owen said in an emailed response to a request for comment. "We work closely with Congress on all efforts to support religious freedom around the world and would be happy to discuss our efforts with them in the future."
Naghmeh Abedini testified tearfully about having to explain to her children, who live with her in Idaho, why her husband is no longer calling them from Iran.
He was convicted in January of undermining Iran's national security by working with house churches from 2000 to 2005 and was sentenced to eight years in prison.
"Saeed is not a political person," she said in an interview after her testimony. "His passion is for Christ, for Jesus. So it's ridiculous that it's being related to national security."
More than 515,000 people have signed an online ACLJ petition urging U.S. and international leaders to press for Abedini's release.
Saeed Abedini's plight bears echoes of Youcef Nadarkhani, an Iranian pastor who faced the death penalty after being accused of apostasy. He was released last year after U.S. leaders, from House Speaker John Boehner to megachurch pastor Rick Warren, rallied for his release.
"We certainly didn't expect that it'd be harder to get help for Saeed Abedini, an American, from the American government than it would have for Youcef Nadarkahi, someone that they'll likely never have a chance to meet," said Jordan Sekulow, attorney for the Abedini family and executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice.
The hearing also addressed the mistreatment of other religious minorities in Iran, including Zoroastrians, Jews and Baha'is.
"In recent months, the Iranian government has managed to stoop to a new low by incarcerating young infants along with their Baha'i mothers," said Katrina Lantos Swett, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Ken Bowers, secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of the United States, testified 436 Baha'is are awaiting trial, appeal or sentencing in Iran, up from 230 in January 2011.
In 2010, seven Baha'i leaders were sentenced to 20 years in prison.
c. 2013 Religion News Service. Used with permission.
Publication date: March 18, 2013