Recent news of the January 21 Iranian trial of Christian Pastor Saeed Abedini before a Revolutionary Guard Court lit up social media and religious freedom activists and circles with sheer outrage over his plight and the rampant increase in Iran of persecution of religious minorities. But is religious liberty and these litmus cases a priority for the leader of the free world?
Pastor Abedini did nothing more than convert from Islam to Christianity 13 years ago and begin preaching his message in an underground network of churches in Iran. He then came to the United States and became an American citizen raising his family in Idaho. His family reported that he returned last fall to Iran to start an orphanage and was snatched from a bus by the Iranian regime on Sept. 26, 2012. He was sent to the infamous Evin Prison in Tehran. The regime’s bogus claim? He was undermining their authority and national security. Many of the claims from the Iranian State News Agency on this case and others have been proven patently false throughout. Yet there has been little public repudiation from President Obama.
The judge assigned to the case has been sanctioned many times by the European Union for his court actions and sentences. Last week it was even reported that the pastor and his attorney were not allowed to attend their own trial. Sadly, but not surprisingly, Pastor Saeed stands now convicted to eight years in prison in an Iranian gulag. This American citizen, who, like so many of our families came to the U.S. for religious freedom, went back only for charity work and is now jailed, having lost the freedom of his adopted nation.
With all the information known on this case, why the irresponsible neglect from the bully pulpit of the White House? The administration embarrassingly so far could only muster a statement from National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor saying, “We remain troubled by the case of U.S. citizen Saeed Abedini, who was arrested by Iranian officials more than three months ago on charges relating to his religious beliefs; we call upon Iranian authorities to release him immediately.” Yet, hypocritically, in June 2009, when two Current TV reporters were imprisoned in North Korea, the Obama White House and Clinton State Department made the reporter’s plight a top priority. They even dispatched former President Bill Clinton as an envoy who was then thankfully able to secure their release.
One cannot help but realize that even though our nation was founded on the “first freedom” being religious freedom, the defense of that freedom abroad is sadly no longer “first." Secular, a-religious causes like that of so many courageous reporters seem easier for many on the left to defend and trumpet against nebulous universally decried fascists like the president of North Korea. However, when the victims are targeted for minority religious speech and liberty, their causes seem all too often to be less palatable to reflexively defend. This seems especially true for this administration when the religious repression is found to be in the hands of Islamists -- a theocratic form of fascism.
As a devout Muslim, relishing my American freedoms, I know that if the freedoms of Christians, Baha’is, Jews, Hindus, other Muslim sects or atheists are trampled upon, so too soon will mine. In countries like Iran, the defense of religious freedom is the most accurate barometer upon which we can hold their nations regularly accountable to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet, we run from the confrontation.
Is the Obama White House fearful of confronting Iran?
History has shown that when Islamists see the defenders of freedom withdraw from conflict with their supremacist goals, they push forward even harder against religious minorities with abandon. This is not just about one pastor, or one American citizen, it is about our credibility as a nation, which defends religious liberty domestically and abroad.
Paul Marshall recently laid out how flagrant and rampant these cases have become with now too many to count -- including Pastor Yusef Nadarkani, Pastor Vruir Avanessian, Behzad Taalipasand and Mohammed-Reza Omidi to name a few of the ever growing number of Iranians and Americans persecuted in Iran for their ‘first freedom.' Fifty members of the House of Representatives recently implored Secretary of State Clinton in a letter to leave “no stone unturned” in gaining the release of Abedini. It is time to hold up cases like Pastor Saeed’s and tirelessly demand accountability and reform inside Iran for every prisoner of conscience. Such a policy from the White House, while perhaps angering Islamists (a good thing), could ultimately also free many innocents and move to reawaken the Green Revolution that we abandoned in 2009.
This administration has proven over and over again to be unwilling to take on Islamist ideologies and defend their victims on the front lines. Whether it be the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia, the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, or the Khomeinists of Iran, the Obama White House has dodged any diplomatic engagement that pushes directly up against a confrontation between western values of freedom and liberty and Islamist values of theocracy and the empowerment of the shar’iah of the Islamic state.
The passive-aggressive nature of White House policy towards Iran has led to the outsourcing of the Syrian conflict to Bashar Assad’s allies (like Russia). It has led to a signal of our weakness in preventing their nuclear ambitions. It has led to the often overt bypassing of EU and American economic sanctions with impunity. And now it is leading more and more to the lonely abandonment of icons of religious freedom inside Iran.
M. Zuhdi Jasser is the author of the recently released book, A Battle for the Soul of Islam (Simon & Schuster) and is President and founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy based in Phoenix, Arizona. He is also a Commissioner on the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (the opinions here are his own).