It's a bad time to be a Christian in the Middle East. Even worse to be a Christian pastor. Now consider this: An American Christian pastor in Iran who converted from Islam. You're right; a scary scenario.
Such is the plight of 33-year-old Pastor Saeed Abedini of Boise, Idaho. He has been locked up in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison since September. On January 27, he was sentenced to eight years in prison on charges "of undermining national security through his Christian evangelical activities."
Abedini, married with two young children, is an Iranian Muslim by birth, who converted to Christianity in 2000. Muslim converts to Christianity are of course apostates and heretics, and are condemned to hell -- to which Evin Prison is by all accounts the first step.
Because Christians are forbidden to worship openly, many underground or "house" churches were established in Iran, and it was in this underground movement that Abedini and his wife Naghmeh, (an American visiting Iran, whom he married in 2002) were active. Indeed, Abedini established some 100 house churches in thirty cities in Iran. But after the election of Ahmedinejad in 2005, the movement was subjected to a brutal crackdown, and the Abedinis moved to the United States, where Saeed later became an ordained minister and an American citizen.
Abedini has made several trips back to Iran to visit family. On one of these trips, in 2009, he was detained by the police, interrogated, and threatened with death for apostasy. He was released only after signing an agreement pledging to cease all house-church activities in Iran.
Last July, Abedini traveled to Iran, again to visit his family, and to help establish an orphanage in the city of Rasht. It was then that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard arrested him, confiscated his passport, and placed him under house arrest. The next move was to Evin.
Here are some passages from a letter written by the imprisoned Abedini to his wife on scraps of newspaper, as reported by the American Center for Law and Justice, which is working for his release:
Hello to my dear love and wife,
When I saw my family for the first time behind the glass walls, I could see my mom four meters away. As she approached me and saw my face, she broke down and could not get closer. She was crying. I understood what she felt because after weeks of being in solitary confinement in Evin Prison, I also got to see my face in the mirror of an elevator that was taking me to the prison hospital. I said hi to the person staring back at me because I did not recognize myself. My hair was shaven, under my eyes were swollen three times what they should have been, my face was swollen, and my beard had grown....
A few days ago they brought a young war veteran who was disabled in 80% of his body in my cell. He had been put in solitary confinement with his horrific condition. And this had made him very mad and he kept saying "Why did they do this to me? I gave my whole life for their sake. See what they have done to me!" And when he would get very mad he would say "I will take my revenge!"
I spoke to this young man until 4 in the morning. I spent time with him and spoke to him to forgive....When we forgive, we become free and we become messengers of peace and reconciliation and goodness....
I forgave the prison doctor who did not listen to me and did not give me the medication that I needed. I forgave the interrogator who beat me....
One of the chances of forgiveness came when I was blindfolded and a guard was holding my hand guiding me. He asked "What are you here for? What is your crime?" I said, "I am Christian Pastor." All of the sudden he let go of my hand and said "So you are unclean! I will tell others not to defile themselves by touching you!" He would tell others not to get close to me. It really broke my heart. The nurse would also come to take care of us and provide us with treatment, but she said in front of others, "In our religion we are not suppose to touch you, you are unclean. Baha'i (religion) and Christians are unclean!" She did not treat me and that night I could not sleep from the intense pain I had. According to the doctor's instructions, they would not give me the pain medication that they would give other prisoners because I was unclean.
I could not fall sleep one night due to the pain when all of a sudden I could hear the sound of dirty sewer rats with their loud noises and screeches. It was around 4 in the morning. It sounded like laughter in a way....I am like the sewer rat...and like the rats I can scream with joy within those prison walls and worship my Lord in joy and strength.
The joy of the Lord is my strength. Amen.
Secretary of State John Kerry finally issued the following statement on March 22:
I am deeply concerned about the fate of U.S. citizen Saeed Abedini, who has been detained for nearly six months and was sentenced to eight years in prison in Iran on charges related to his religious beliefs. I am disturbed by reports that Mr. Abedini has suffered physical and psychological abuse in prison, that that his condition has become increasingly dire. Such mistreatment violates international norms as well as Iran's own laws.
I am also troubled by the lack of due process in Abedini's case and Iran's continued refusal to allow consular access by Swiss authorities, the U.S. protecting power in Iran. I welcome reports that Mr. Abedini was examined by a physician and expect Iranian authorities to honor their commitment to allow Mr.
Abedini to receive treatment for these injuries from a specialist outside the prison. The best outcome for Mr. Abedini is that he be immediately released.
From Kerry's mouth to God's ear. Like the good pastor himself, we must wait and hope -- and maybe even pray.