An Iranian-born U.S. pastor was seized by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, thrown behind bars without being formally charged, and allegedly beaten for his involvement with Iran’s underground church communities.
The Rev. Saeed Abedini, 32, was in Iran to visit relatives and bolster his plans to build an orphanage in his homeland. Abedini, an American citizen and convert to Christianity, was placed under house arrest in July. On the morning of Sept. 26, five members of the Revolutionary Guard forcibly entered his home. They took him to the Evin prison in Tehran, which is known for its brutal abuse of political prisoners.
Abedini spent four weeks in solitary confinement before being released into the general prison population. He continues to undergo interrogation and has been beaten by his guards and his cellmates, according to the American Center for Law and Justice, the conservative law organization that is representing Abedini’s family in America.
In a letter written from prison, Abedini reveals that his faith is giving him the strength he needs.
“These walls have created more fervor for me to love others through sharing the Gospel, but more than that, the walls have deepened my love for my Savior,” writes Abedini in the letter released by the ACLJ. “I feel the prayers of all who are praying for me. I hope to one day meet each one of them face to face and embrace them in my arms.”
The Iranian government has told Abedini’s family that the pastor is a national security threat and will be charged with espionage. An Iranian court indicted Abedini, but the government has failed to provide his family with any details about the charges.
A State Department spokesperson told the Daily News that they are “aware of this case.” However, due to privacy considerations, they are unable to comment further.
Abedini could be in prison for a long time and may even face the death penalty, according to Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the ACLJ.
The ACLJ believes that the government is targeting Abedini solely on the basis of his religion.
“Pastor Saeed's alleged crime (is) converting to Christianity and proclaiming his Christian faith," said Sekulow in a statement, “His imprisonment and indictment violates international human rights and religious freedom laws.”
Abedini grew up in Iran as a devout Muslim. His wife, Nagmeh Panahi, told Fox News that her husband converted after he was recruited by extremists to train to be a suicide bomber. The experience left him severely depressed until his conversion in 2000 turned him into an evangelist for Christ within Iran.
That’s when he became a target.
“He was considered a criminal by the government and continually wanted and arrested for his faith,” Panahi said in an interview with the ACLJ.
According to Iran's constitution, Shi'a Islam is the country's official religion. Religious minorities--whether they are Bahai, Zoroastrian, Jewish or Christian--are restricted in the ways they can practice their faith. Converts from Islam to Christianity risk facing the death penalty, reports Amnesty International. They are not allowed to attend official churches, causing people to meet secretly in their houses.
Abedini had been very active in the underground church community in Iran, before and after he moved to America. At its peak, Abedini’s house-church movement had about 100 churches in 30 cities, reaching about 2,000 members, according to Fox News.
“They see the underground churches as a threat and they see Christianity as a tool from the West to undermine them,” Panahi said. “They think if the country becomes more Christian, they are no longer under Islamic authority. That’s why it’s a threat.”
This isn’t the first time that Abedini has been detained and questioned about his leadership activities in the church, according to the ACLJ. In 2009, Iranian authorities ripped his 1-year-old son out of his hands and pulled Abedini off of a flight back to the U.S. His wife and two children were allowed to return to America, but the pastor was interrogated for hours. They agreed to release him after he signed an agreement saying that he would never again be involved with the Iranian house-church movement.
The ACLJ insists that his most recent visit to Iran was purely for humanitarian work.
“You have a situation of arbitrary detention here,” Tiffany Barrans, an ACLJ lawyer concerned with Abedini’s case, told Fox News. “Iran is violating its own Constitution and its international obligations.”
The ACLJ has launched an international media campaign to pressure Iran for Abedini’s release. They are trying to get the U.S. government and the UN on board to help bring the pastor back home as soon as possible.
They’ve also been gathering support online. The “Pray for Pastor Saeed Abedini” Facebook group is encouraging individuals to sign a petition asking for the pastor’s release. Panahi has been keeping friends and family up to date about her husband’s condition through Abedini’s Facebook account.
Abedini’s church community in Boise, Idaho has been reaching out to the family through social media and through in-person prayer meetings. Abedini is currently a minister with the American Evangelistic Association. He frequently participated in services and outreach at Calvary Chapel Boise, a community church in Idaho.
“They’ve been praying for the kids and family in general,” Shokoofeh Panahi, Nagmeh Panahi’s her sister-in-law, told the Daily News. “I’m constantly seeing Facebook messages of prayer and encouraging words. She has a really good people supporting her there, they’ve been stepping up very nicely.”
Despite the outpouring of support, Shokoofeh Panahi said that these have been very difficult times for their entire family, especially the kids. Abedini was a stay-at-home dad who had a special bedtime routine with his 6-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son.
“I think for the longest time, she tried to hide it from her kids,” Shokoofeh said of her sister-in-law. “She just told them that he’s away, that he had to stay a little longer with grandma.”
It wasn’t long before Abedini’s daughter began to understand that something was wrong.
“A few weeks ago, my daughter] was crying, crying, ‘Mommy, I’m forgetting Daddy’s voice, I don’t remember how his voice sounds anymore,’’’ Nagmeh Panahi said in an interview with the ACLJ.
They arranged a call with Abedini, who has been keeping in touch with his family through sporadic and heavily monitored five-minute phone conversations. But it wasn’t enough to console her daughter.
"Our concern is growing with each passing day," Panahi said. "During this season of our Savior’s birth, our family — including our two young children — cannot help but feel a huge gap in our midst. Memories of years past tear at our hearts as we desperately pray for Saeed to come home."