Earlier today, I, along with ACLJ Chief Counsel Jay Sekulow and Pastor Saeed’s wife Naghmeh, presented testimony before a standing-room only crowd at the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission of the U.S. Congress about American Pastor Saeed Abedini and the worsening plight of Christians in Iran.
Today’s testimony before this bipartisan commission of Congress presented the best opportunity yet to elevate Pastor Saeed’s case within our own government.
I told the Commission that we all appreciate the strong bipartisan efforts of Congress on Pastor Saeed’s behalf. More than 100 Members of Congress, including 20 members of the Commission, have personally condemned Iran’s unlawful detention of Pastor Saeed for his religious beliefs.
In my prepared remarks I told the Commission:
I’m hopeful that today’s hearing will highlight the commitment to this case that so many of you have shown, and that the world will hear the U.S. government speaking with one voice in strong defense of our fellow citizen, Pastor Saeed Abedini.
Pastor Saeed was convicted by the Islamic Republic of Iran for his religious beliefs after what can only be described as a sham trial. He has been beaten, tortured, and told he will hang for his Christian faith. He was sentenced to eight years in one of Iran’s most notoriously brutal and deadly prisons. He is currently suffering innumerable human rights abuses as Iran violates its own constitution and numerous international treaties to which it has willingly bound itself, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
While Congress’s support has been tremendous, I expressed our extreme disappointment with the lack up public support from the State Department.
[W]e remain deeply concerned that this case does not appear to have received the prioritization of similar cases where an American has been wrongfully detained. Many will recall the story of the American hikers who mistakenly wandered into Iran, or the current story of the retired FBI agent who is missing in Iran. In both of these cases, those involved received presidential level support and engagement – and rightfully so, I might add. It is discouraging, however, that Pastor Saeed’s case is not being addressed at that level.
In my written testimony, I explained:
In addition to the horrific abuse and torture Pastor Saeed has faced at the hands of his brutal Iranian captors, Pastor Saeed has, at times, been nearly abandoned by his own U.S. government. While Pastor Saeed has been unlawfully detained by the Iranian government since late July 2012 and U.S. authorities were almost immediately notified of his situation, it has been only recently that anyone from the State Department or the White House has publicly called for his release. It was not until mid-January of this year, 2013, that the State Department even publicly mentioned Pastor Saeed’s case and only to say that his detention raised “serious concerns.”
I conclude my testimony noting:
Behind the scenes, we remained concerned that the diplomatic efforts to free Pastor Saeed are significantly underwhelming. While the U.S. does not have direct diplomatic relations with Iran, we have been frustrated by a lack of desire from our State Department to aggressively engage with intermediary nations, those that do have relations with Iran. We believe that some of this engagement is occurring, but have no reason to believe these are more than token efforts. We have been specifically frustrated that the State Department has not even been willing to share with Naghmeh specifics about the efforts they are taking behind the scenes. The question remains: What is the State Department really doing to free Pastor Saeed?
This point could not have been made more clear than by the fact that the State Department, which was also asked by the Commission to testify, refused to appear and answer any questions about their efforts for Pastor Saeed. The State Department’s unwillingness to fully engage this case is abysmal.
Pastor Saeed’s wife, Naghmeh, also expressed her disappointment with our government’s lack of prioritizing Pastor Saeed’s case. She told Congress:
I must tell you that I am disappointed with my government. I am disappointed that our President and our State Department have not fully engaged this case – disappointed that this great country is not doing more to free my husband, a U.S. citizen. Yes, we are both proud to be American citizens. And I expect more from our government.
She recalled how proud Saeed was to become a U.S. citizen:
Saeed became a US citizen in the year 2010. I remember Saeed saying it was one of the best days of his life and he was so proud to be an American. He was so excited, he announced it on his social media and soon after, a flag was sent to him from Senator Carl Levin’s office for the occasion of Saeed becoming a citizen. He was so proud!
She also presented the certificate (seen below) that Pastor Saeed received from Senator Levin.
Naghmeh shared with Congress the struggle her family has endured because of her husband’s wrongful imprisonment in Iran:
My husband, Saeed Abedini, who is an American citizen has been sentenced to 8 years in prison inside of Iran because of his conversion from Islam to Christianity. We have two kids, Rebekka Grace who is 6 years old, and Jacob Cyrus who is 4 years old. A day does not go by that they do not ask for their daddy. A day does not go by that they do not long for him. Most nights they cry themselves to sleep, wanting daddy home. I have not had the heart to tell them of the 8 year sentence. I am hoping that I will not have to tell them of the 8 year sentence. I am hoping that we can bring Saeed home soon.
She shared Saeed’s story of abuse and imprisonment and made a heartfelt plea for more action from the U.S. government. She testified:
Saeed holds to what he believes and will not give in under any pressure from the Revolutionary Guards. He is standing up for religious freedom in a country that has no respect for human rights. Are we going to stand with him? Are we going to stand up as country and protect a citizen whose human right of religious freedom is so clearly violated? Americans are not all Christians; but every American – regardless of their beliefs – wants to be reassured and know that our government will take decisive action to protect us if someone uses force to try to make us abandon or change our beliefs.
Saeed is a husband and amazing father. The kids and I miss him terribly. Our kids hold onto the hope of seeing their daddy very soon. The truth is we do not know if we will ever speak to him or see him again. Many mornings they wake up and start running around the house and in the yard. I ask them what they are doing and they say very disappointed “it must have been a dream. We saw daddy was home and he was going to twirl us around.” I hold back my tears as I tell them that it was a dream. I still do not have the heart to tell them that if we don’t do anything, that daddy might never survive the horrific Evin prison. I do not have the heart to tell them of the 8 year sentence. I do hope we can work together to bring Saeed home and I will never have to tell my kids of the dire situation their father is in.
In addition to this testimony and the testimony of other human rights experts, the Commission heard testimony from ACLJ Chief Counsel Jay Sekulow about what he called the “systemic and systematic state persecution and discrimination” of Christians by the Iranian government.
Jay testified, “The fact is that Iran is one of the world’s worst offenders of religious freedom and human rights.” He continued:
The human rights situation for the Christian minority in Iran has regressed to the lowest levels we have seen since the early days of the Islamic revolution. Killings, arrests, death threats, attempted forced conversions to Islam, various intimidation tactics, and physical abuse during arbitrary detention has significantly increased in recent years.
He explained that the abuse that Pastor Saeed has faced is symbolic of the plight faced by many Christians in Iran:
Iran’s legal system is a sham. Its persecution of Christians and other religious minorities is entirely skewed – making the government the judge, jury, and, in many cases, the executioner – ignoring the truth and the facts. Defendants have no real opportunity to present a case – no chance to convince the court of their innocence.
He discussed the case of Christian Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani who was released for a second time earlier this year after facing execution for apostasy and informed the commission about the plight of two other Christian Pastors in Iranian prison for their faith, Farshid Fathi and Behnam Irani.
In the case of American Pastor Saeed Abedini – imprisoned in Iran because of his Christian faith – we have heard from nearly 500,000 people around the world who are demanding his release. The more attention to his plight, the better. The more news coverage – the more public involvement – the better. Iran needs to understand that the world is watching.
But that pressure, while critical, cannot work alone. As religious persecution of Christians exponentially increases, we must ensure that religious liberty for all is a top priority in U.S. foreign policy. The fact is, most countries that violate religious freedom pose a serious risk to U.S. national security. At best, the United States has sent mixed messages to the world as to our priority on religious liberty issues. It is time for the President and the Secretary of State to personally engage this issue – to speak out – to use the full weight of the U.S. government to defend religious freedom and protect human rights.
We must all do all we can. The American people are clearly standing up for Pastor Saeed. Yet, the State Department, despite repeated assurances that it is doing all it can for Pastor Saeed, is clearly not, as evidenced in part by their refusal to appear before today’s congressional hearing.
We will continue the fight for Pastor Saeed’s freedom. Please continue to pray and speak out for the release of this persecuted pastor.
You can read our entire testimony at the links below.