ISTANBUL (Morning Star News) – An Iranian-American pastor spent his 33rd birthday in solitary confinement today, suffering from untreated injuries from beatings by prisoners and officials in an Iranian prison.
Saeed Abedini has spent six months in Tehran’s harsh Evin Prison, known for housing political dissidents and government protestors, where he is serving an eight-year sentence for planting house churches from 2000 to 2005. Although there is no law against house churches, the government termed his involvement a threat to “national security,” even though he had ceased such work after agreeing in 2009 to limit his ministry to humanitarian work.
An international letter-writing campaign for his birthday resulted in more than 52,000 letters arriving at the maximum-security prison. The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), an advocacy group that represents his family, worked with intermediaries to send the notes to Evin Prison.
The large number of letters also serves to let Iranian officials know that the international community is still fighting for his release, said Tiffany Barrans, international legal director of the ACLJ.
“We know from former prisoners that letters are a source of encouragement, that the guards are required to translate every incoming mail, and that these letters put the government of Iran on notice that it is being watched,” Barrans told Morning Star News.
Abedini was sentenced on Jan. 27 for threatening “national security,” a catch-all phrase often used by Iranian courts to imprison converts from Islam for various sorts of evangelistic activities.
In late April he was put into solitary confinement following a “peaceful, silent protest” in an outside courtyard with other prisoners over the lack of medical care and threats against visiting family members, according to Mohabat News Agency.
He and nine others were placed into solitary confinement. Abedini suffers severe internal bleeding from beatings.
His wife, Naghmeh Abedini, released a statement today describing her feelings.
“There is a deep piercing pain in my heart knowing that you will spend your birthday in solitary confinement, constrained to a small room, not knowing when it is day or night,” she stated. “Under constant torture and abuse by radicals who are trying to break you and have you deny your faith in Jesus.
“With tightness in my throat, pain in my heart, and tears streaming down my face ... so very weak, I promise to stand strong in the strength of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ fighting with every strength of my being until you are united to our family again.”
Guards have stepped up harassment in recent weeks. Yesterday (May 6) officials prevented his father from visiting. On April 29, other family members in Iran were turned away and told they would no longer be able to visit Abedini.
This shift came after guards fed him false hopes of medical treatment. On April 15, prison officials took him to a hospital but brought him back without any treatment and beat him severely that day, according to International Christian Concern.
His family members, who visited him that day, said that his cellmates threatened to suffocate him in his sleep and make the death look like an accident.
The treatment is an intentional strategy by prison officials to force the pastor renounce Christianity, said ACLJ executive director Jordan Sekulow.
“We know that a tactic used by the Iranians is to place prisoners in solitary confinement in an effort to get them to give in to the demands of prison officials – in pastor Saeed’s case, to recant his Christian faith,” he said.
Abedini has traveled back and forth between the United States and Iran since becoming a U.S. citizen in 2010. He has made over nine humanitarian trips to Iran since 2009 and planned to establish an orphanage on his most recent trip.
Between his conversion in 2000 and 2005 he worked to establish house churches at a time of relative religious freedom in Iran. After Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s 2005 election as president, however, crackdowns on Christians intensified. Abedini was arrested in 2009 and released on the condition that he only engage in humanitarian work.
He was on such a trip last year when he was arrested. He was working with his family’s non-profit organization, whose Farsi name translates to “Morning Star,” which works to house and educate orphans.
Abedini’s family members assert that the charges for his original arrest – that he was working with illegal church groups – is not only unjust but false. No criminal law in Iran penalizes private religious gatherings in a person’s home, regardless of whether they are affiliated with a church, Barrans said.
“If there were such a crime, the Iranian government would have charged pastor Saeed with that crime,” said Barrans. “But because pastor Saeed’s actions of gathering with fellow believers were lawful, the Iranian government had to charge pastor Saeed under the vague and manipulable ‘national security’ offense – thus allowing the government to assert that a perfectly lawful act was intended to undermine the national security.”
Moreover, Naghmeh has said that the house church Abedini was working with before 2005 was legal at the time because it was sponsored by a legally recognized church.
The international push for his release is slowly gaining momentum. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s annual report, released last month, cited Abedini’s case as one of many reasons it considers Iran a “Country of Particular Concern” for “egregious religious freedom violations.”
In March, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called for his release, as did State Department officials at the United Nations.
Organizations that have publicly called for his release include the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran, which raised Abedini’s case at the U.N. Human Rights Council. The European Union also demanded at the United Nations that Iran release him.
Over 580,000 have signed a petition for his release at SaveSaeed.org.
Behind the scenes, private diplomatic efforts continue to try securing his release.
Naghmeh and their two children, a 6-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son, reside in Idaho. Abedini was ordained as a member of the American Evangelistic Association in 2008.
The family was shaken by the news that he was put into solitary confinement, Barrans said. Sekulow added that until he is released, advocacy groups are continually working to lift the pastor’s spirits and apply pressure on the Iranian regime for his release.
“We want Pastor Saeed to know that he is not forgotten, and thousands upon thousands of people are fighting for his freedom,” Sekulow said. “It is also an important opportunity to let Iran know that we will not forget about this persecuted pastor. Iranian officials will be reviewing and paying attention to these letters. They will feel the incredible pressure of the world community calling for Pastor Saeed’s release.”
c. 2013 Morning Star News. Used with permission.
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Publication date: May 7, 2013