It was quite unexpected and most welcomed. 

President Obama taking the lead – in a very public way – in ongoing efforts to free American Pastor Saeed Abedini, a U.S. citizen held in Iran for nearly two and a half years merely because of his Christian faith.

We’re grateful that President Obama once again publicly mentioned Pastor Saeed’s plight, putting his case front-and-center – giving it more attention – keeping it in the news – another step forward in what we and the Abedini family hope will lead to the release of Pastor Saeed.

At the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, Thursday, President Obama delivered important remarks underscoring his commitment to securing the freedom of Pastor Saeed – not just a passing reference in his speech, but spending more than one minute and a half talking about Pastor Saeed’s plight.

We’re grateful that President Obama once again publicly mentioned Pastor Saeed’s plight, putting his case front-and-center – giving it more attention – keeping it in the news – another step forward in what we and the Abedini family hope will lead to the release of Pastor Saeed.

“Last year we prayed together for Pastor Saeed Abedini detained in Iran since 2012,” the president said. “And I was recently in Boise, Idaho and had the opportunity to meet with Pastor Abedini’s beautiful wife and wonderful children and to convey to them that our country has not forgotten Brother Saeed and that we are doing everything we can to bring him home.”

We’re grateful that President Obama once again publicly mentioned Pastor Saeed’s plight, putting his case front-and-center – giving it more attention – keeping it in the news – another step forward in what we and the Abedini family hope will lead to the release of Pastor Saeed.

The president’s comments come just two weeks after he met face-to-face with Pastor Saeed’s wife, Naghmeh and their two children – Jacob and Rebekkah.  During the 10 minute meeting, President Obama told the Abedini family that securing Pastor Saeed’s freedom is a “top priority” – a meeting that provided a renewed sense of hope to the Abedini family.

One week later, Pastor Saeed – from inside his prison cell – wrote a letter to President Obama and handed it to a family member who was visiting him in prison. The letter was sent to the White House – a letter that clearly made an impression on President Obama who referenced it in his remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast Thursday.

“I received an extraordinary letter from Pastor Abedini.  And in it, he describes his captivity and expressed his gratitude for my visit with his family and thanked us all for standing in solidarity with him during his captivity. And Pastor Abedini wrote: ‘Nothing is more valuable to the Body of Christ than to see how the Lord is in control and moves ahead of countries and leadership through united prayer.’  And he closed his letter by describing himself as ‘prisoner for Christ who is proud to be part of this great nation, the United States of America that cares for religious freedom around the world.’”

A powerful letter that made a powerful impact on President Obama.

During the private meeting with the Abedini family, President Obama told Naghmeh that he meets with Secretary of State Kerry regularly and follows up on Pastor Saeed’s case. President Obama also told Naghmeh that Secretary Kerry brings up Pastor Saeed’s plight every time he meets with the Iranians.

That new piece of information is not only encouraging but critical to securing the release of Pastor Saeed.

As the world watches, the United States continues to negotiate with Iran on the nuclear issue. There are varying reports about the progress in reaching a deal – including a report just out quoting an Iranian official claiming that the U.S. is “begging” Iran for a deal.

While we certainly don’t know what’s taking place behind closed doors, it is our hope that the Obama administration’s message to Iran is forceful and direct. 

The Iranians need to know that the United States is committed to securing the release of Pastor Saeed and the other Americans held captive. That must happen before any deal is reached with Iran. That demand must be non-negotiable.

This promise today from President Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast:  “We’re going to keep up this work for Pastor Abedini and all those around the world who are unjustly held or persecuted because of their faith.”

On this special day of prayer, our prayers are with Pastor Saeed, his family, and President Obama – it’s time for this American pastor to come home.

Jay Sekulow is Chief Counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which focuses on constitutional law. He’s a New York Times bestselling author. Jay’s latest book – “Unholy Alliance: The Agenda Iran, Russia, and Jihadists Share for Conquering the World” – is available now.  He hosts "Jay Sekulow Live"-- a daily radio show which is broadcast on more than 850 stations nationwide as well as Sirius/XM satellite radio. Follow him on Twitter @JaySekulow.