Wife Works To Free Pastor From Iranian Prison
Each week, Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin brings listeners an unexpected side of the news by talking with someone personally affected by the stories making headlines.
Naghmeh Abedini's Iranian-American husband converted from Islam to Christianity 13 years ago. Since then, Saeed Abedini has made many trips to Iran, most recently to build an orphanage.
But he was detained by Iranian authorities in 2012. "We were working with [the government]" on the orphanage, Naghmeh Abedini tells Martin, "and very unexpectedly, they put him under house arrest, and we were shocked when they took him." In January, he was sentenced to eight years in prison on charges of disturbing national security.
Saeed Abedini is serving his sentence at Evin Prison, which his wife calls "one of the most horrific prisons in the world." Some prisoners are allowed to call their families several times a week, but he is not granted that liberty. His parents visit weekly, though, and are able to speak with him about how he's faring.
He has told his family he has lost some of his eyesight and memory after time spent in solitary. He has also endured beatings, and, says Naghmeh Abedini, "was told he would be released if he would deny his Christian faith and return to Islam."
Still, he continues to proselytize to his fellow inmates. "He sees hopeless people in that prison," says Naghmeh Abedini. "And I know the only thing Saeed can offer them is his faith, his hope that there's a god and they can have a relationship with god, despite where they're at."
And Naghmeh Abedini believe she is close to finding a way to bring her husband home. She was recently able to hand-deliver a letter Saeed Abedini wrote to a delegate for Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, and President Obama also asked about him in a call with Rouhani. "These are very hopeful signs," she says. "I don't give my kids a timeline, but I'm very hopeful that we would see him home soon."
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NAGHMEH ABEDINI: Pretty much one of the most powerful things that happened to him - that converted him, I guess - is that he had a vision, or some kind of an encounter with Jesus, where he saw Jesus; and he told Saeed that he's coming back soon, and to go preach the Gospel. And so he converted and started, you know, sharing his faith.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Naghmeh Abedini's Iranian-American husband converted from Islam to Christianity 13 years ago. Saeed Abedini traveled back and forth to Iran, most recently to build an orphanage. But he was detained by Iranian authorities last year and in January, he was sentenced to eight years in prison, on charges of disturbing national security. Naghmeh Abedini insists her husband was working closely with the Iranian government, and had permission to build the orphanage.
President Obama recently pressed for Abedini's release when he spoke on the phone with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Naghmeh Abedini is our Sunday Conversation.
ABEDINI: We already had a land in north of Iran from his grandfather, who had handed down to Saeed's father; and we already had a building there. We know we had to make minor changes to the building. So we start, decide to work on an orphanage with the government's approval. We were working with them. Saeed traveled more than nine, 10 times between 2009 and 2012 and very unexpectedly, they put him under house arrest. And we were shocked when they took him - and on Sept. 26th, they physically took him. And he's been in Evin Prison ever since. We just celebrated - or actually, not celebrated but did a prayer vigil for him on the one-year anniversary, which was last week.
MARTIN: Your husband has been in prison for over a year now. How often are you in touch with him? Are you allowed to talk on the phone, exchange letters?
ABEDINI: No. Evin is one of the most horrific prisons in the world. But prisoners do have certain rights, one of them of which they can call their families a few times a week; and unfortunately, that has not been allowed. The only thing we have been allowed is, his parents do get to visit him once a week in Evin Prison, and are able to get reports of how he's doing.
MARTIN: Do you know how he's doing? Where, exactly, is he being held, what kind of cell, what kind of interactions does he have with other prisoners?
ABEDINI: He's been put in and out of solitary, which is pretty much a dark hole. And he mentioned to his family, his eyesight, he was losing his eyesight. He couldn't see distance. And he was losing his memory. He endured beatings and was told he would be released if he would deny his Christian faith and return to Islam. We know he's doing much better, physically, now. The Iranian government did finally admit him to a hospital.
And emotionally, it's been difficult. My daughter just turned 7 a couple weeks ago, and it was the second year without Daddy. And it was very difficult because we realized, this is the seconds now; this is the second birthdays, and second Christmases. And the kids are growing up without him. And he mentioned to his family when they visited him, that he was realizing he's not there to see his kids grow up. And that has been the most difficult part of the journey.
MARTIN: Did you and your husband ever have conversations about the risks? You had to have known that there were inherent risks for him - to him going back to Iran and doing this work.
ABEDINI: We were really more worried about the radicals, but not necessarily worried about the Iranian government doing anything. And, you know, that's just given. If you work in the Middle East, you're going to be faced with radical extremists attacking you as a Christian, and it's a risk we decide to take for the orphans.
And we even took our kids back in October of 2011, and our hesitation always came - what if there's extremists that are not happy with us building an orphanage there? - but never from the Iranian government.
MARTIN: I read that you gave an address at Liberty University, in which you said that your husband was not being quiet about his faith while in prison; that he was actually talking with people about his faith. He was proselytizing. Is that dangerous for him?
ABEDINI: He sees hopeless people in that prison who've tried to commit suicide. They can't handle the prison. They have either death sentences - two of his cellmates were hanged in front of him. And I know the only thing Saeed can offer them is his faith, his hope that there's a God and, you know, they can have a relationship with God despite where they're at. And I believe that's why he's been sharing his faith even though it's been dangerous. He feels like that's all he has to offer, to help them.
MARTIN: You do have two kids. How do you talk to them about their Dad, what's happened to him? Are there things you don't tell them?
ABEDINI: I haven't said the eight-year sentence. They heard it a few times here and there from some news. And they kind of asked me, what does this mean? And I kind of change the subject. They pray every day, hoping he's home. They don't know about the long-term imprisonment. They don't know, we don't talk about the beatings. So those are difficult things that I don't discuss with them. But I've been asking them to pray.
And my son loves to go to New York. He loves the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And as I was leaving for New York last week to - because the Iranian president was there, and I was trying to get a letter to him from Saeed - he was crying, saying, Mommy, I want to go to New York. I want to go to the sewers and see the turtles. And I keep saying, wait, Daddy loved going to New York too. Let's wait till Daddy comes home.
And so he was saying, how much more? I'm going to get old, and I'm still not going to - Daddy's not still going to come out. And so I saw a little hopeless part of him, just wanting to give up. But, you know, I do believe we're so much closer to him coming home, with the New York trip. I got to hand-deliver Saeed's letter to the Iranian president, to a very high-up delegate and then our - you know, President Obama did call the Iranian president, and did specifically ask about Saeed. So these are very hopeful signs. I don't give my kids a timeline, but I'm very hopeful that we would see him home soon.
MARTIN: Naghmeh Abedini of Boise, Idaho. Her husband, Saeed Abedini, has been imprisoned in Iran for the past year. Thank you so much for talking with us.
ABEDINI: Thank you.
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MARTIN: In the past few weeks, Iran has released several political prisoners, including a well-known human rights lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh, who was arrested in 2010. She had been convicted of spreading propaganda, and had been sentenced to six years in prison. The prisoner release is one of several recent moves by the new Iranian government, to be seen as more moderate and to try to repair Iran's relationships with the United States and its allies - a relationship long complicated by Iran's nuclear program.
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