09302014Tue

American pastor imprisoned while visiting family in Iran

 

Fox News

By Lisa Daftari

A 32-year-old Iranian who is a U.S. citizen and a Christian convert has been imprisoned without notice of any formal charges while visiting his family in Iran, according to his wife and attorneys in the U.S., who are now hoping that a media campaign will help set him free.

The Rev. Saeed Abedini, who lives in the U.S. with his wife and two young children, was making one of his frequent visits to see his parents and the rest of his family in Iran, his country of origin and where he spent many years as a Christian leader and community organizer developing Iran's underground home church communities for Christian converts.

On this last trip, the Iranian government pulled him off a bus and said he must face a penalty for his previous work as a Christian leader in Iran.

He is currently awaiting trial at Iran's notoriously brutal Evin Prison, where he has been incarcerated since late September.

"When he became a Christian, he became a criminal in his own country. His passion was to reach the people of Iran," Naghmeh, his wife, said in an exclusive interview with Fox News.

"He comes from a very close-knit family, and he loved evangelizing and passing out Bibles on the streets of Tehran. This was his passion," she said.

In July, Abedini left his wife and kids to go to Iran to visit family and continue a humanitarian effort he began years ago to build an orphanage.

After a short visit to a nearby country, Abedini was traveling back into Iran to catch his flight back to the U.S. when members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard stopped his bus near the Turkey-Iran border and pulled Abedini from the bus, confiscating his passports and subjecting him to intense interrogation, according to his wife.

After weeks under house arrest and many calls to Iran's passport control office about the status of his confiscated passport, Abedini was told that his case has been referred to the Revolutionary Guard, the Iranian government's elite military force.

On Sept. 26, five men kicked open the door of Abedini's parents' residence in Tehran where they collected all communications devices and arrested him while placing the rest of his family members, who are also Christians converts from Islam, under house arrest.

The family remains under house arrest, according to Naghmeh.

Two days before the home raid, Naghmeh reports getting a call to her cellphone in the U.S., from someone she thinks was an Iranian government agent threatening that she would "never see him again."

Abedini is the father of a house church movement in Iran, a community of underground places of worship for former Muslims who convert to Christianity and are not allowed to formally pray in recognized churches.

Over the course of his involvement, his home church movement had about 100 churches in 30 Iranian cities with more than 2,000 members.

"It was just growing so fast. They see the underground churches as a threat and they see Christianity as a tool from the West to undermine them," Naghmeh said. "They think if the country becomes more Christian, they are no longer under Islamic authority. That's why it's a threat."

But "Christianity saved his life," Naghmeh says of her husband, who converted at the age of 20, after becoming severely depressed from undergoing suicide bomber training by a radical Muslim group.

Abedini was recruited in high school and taken to the mosque to be trained, she says. The more he sought to be a devout Muslim and the deeper he went into training, the more depressed he became.

Under Shariah, or Islamic law, a Muslim who converts to Christianity is on a par with someone waging war against Islam. Death sentences for such individuals are prescribed by fatwas, or legal decrees, and reinforced by Iran’s Constitution, which allows judges to rely on fatwas for determining charges and sentencing on crimes not addressed in the Iranian penal code.

All religious minorities in Iran, including Bahais, Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians, have faced various forms of persecution and political and social marginalization throughout the regime’s 30-year reign. But the government saves its harshest retribution for those who have abandoned Islam.

During the many rounds of interrogations, Abedini has informally been told he will be charged for threatening the national security of Iran and espionage, due to his involvement with Christian house churches and foreign Christian satellite TV ministries.

The Iranian government offered bail in the amount of 500 million toman, or roughly $410,000. Abedini's family has prepared the bail documents many times already but have not been successful in having it accepted or approved, they say.

Just this week they prepared yet again the bail documents but were told they were not going to be accepted. When they inquired, they were told, "Boro Gomsho!" or get lost.

"It's hardest on the kids," Naghmeh said. "Saeed was a stay-at-home dad. My daughter said she is forgetting Daddy's voice and she asked me, 'Do you think he has a beard now?' I didn't even think of that. She keeps playing the home videos over and over. It's the hardest at night because he had a night routine with them when he would read them books and tuck them in. They miss that the most."

Abedini and his wife had met in Iran in 2002, while she was there working for Iranian relatives, and were married shortly thereafter. Together, they worked as Christian leaders in the underground house churches. After facing persecution for these activities, in 2005, they moved to the U.S. together.

His first trip back to Iran was in 2009 with his wife and two children to visit his family when he came under government scrutiny. As the family attempted to catch their flight back to the U.S., Abedini was detained and told he would have to stay in the country for further questioning. His wife and children were put on a plane bound for the U.S., separated from their husband and father.

After the arrest and rounds of intense interrogation, in which the interrogators threatened Abedini with death for his conversion to Christianity, they agreed to release him, according to his attorneys, but only after he signed a written agreement in which the government would not charge him for his Christian activities, and he would be allowed to enter and exit the country so long as he ceased all official house church activities.

According to his attorneys, he had honored this agreement. "He thought if he honored his part, they would honor theirs. He was transparent about his humanitarian work there," said Tiffany Barrans, International Legal Director at the American Center for Law and Justice based in Washington D.C, the organization representing Abedini’s U.S.-based family.

This was ninth trip since 2009 to visit family and to continue his humanitarian work on developing a non-sectarian orphanage in the city of Rasht on a family-owned land plot.

"You have a situation of arbitrary detention here. Iran is violating its own constitution and its international obligations. As citizens of the world, we need to wake up to these violations. Iran needs to be exposed for its violation of these laws," said Barrans, who has been working very closely with Naghmeh to push for her husband's release.

The American Center for Law and Justice is providing legal support to Naghmeh by working through the US government, members of Congress, various governments around the world, and with leaders in the United Nations to help release Pastor Saeed.

The ACLJ previously played an integral role in reaching various government representatives in the case of imprisoned minister Youcef Nadarkhani, who was freed from an Iranian prison after nearly three years following a tremendous international outcry demanding his release.

Despite the fact that Abedini was arrested Sept. 26, the family elected to work through different private means to get him released. In that time, however, he was denied access to an attorney and was badly been beaten by prison guards. According to his wife, Abedini is also being severely beaten by his cell mates who self-identify as members of Al Qaeda. The family is greatly concerned for his health and well being.

The U.S. has not had formal diplomatic ties with the Iranian government since 1980 and relies on alternative efforts in such instances.

Fox News reached out to the State Department for comment on Abedini's case but has not received a call back yet.

"We were hopeful that the Iranian government would have released him by now and that private efforts would have been more successful. Also, as Saeed has family in Iran, we had to be mindful of the fact that any public action taken could put his family at risk," said Barrans.

"They see that the house church culture is alive and thriving. They believe that making an example out of their former leader will deter others from practicing and converting to Christianity."

Several house church members, friends and distant relatives of Abedini have had to flee the country in recent months after being summoned by the government to collect evidence against him.

As a convert away from Islam, worshippers are not permitted to attend services at official churches. Underground house churches became a popular way to get around this restriction.

"They have denied converts the opportunity to worship in an official place of worship. Then they tell them they can't practice their faith underground, and doing so is a crime against Iran’s national security interests. How is this not a violation of religious freedom?" Barrans said.

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