As her husband's trial and possible death sentence looms, the wife of an American Christian pastor imprisoned in Iran for evangelizing clings to hope and prays for a miracle.
Naghmeh Abedini has been told by attorneys for her husband, Saeed, to expect the worst at Monday's trial, where the 32-year-old husband and father faces the capital charge of compromising national security. Supporters believe the charges are directly related to Abedini’s work nearly a decade ago starting a house church movement in Iran, and the judge he'll face, Abbas Pir-Abassi, is infamous for sending defendants to the gallows.
“When I do get to speak with him, I don’t even know what to say. What do you say when you only have four minutes?”
- Nagmeh Abedini, wife of American held in Iran
“There is a lot going through my mind. I can never clear my head. I only sleep two hours a night,” Naghmeh Abedini told Foxnews.com by phone from her family's home near Boise. “Unfortunately, he has been set up for failure and a harsh sentence because of his beliefs. His attorney says that the court has gathered a large amount of evidence against him."
As the trial approaches, Nagmeh and her husband's supporters are hoping international pressure will be felt inside the Iranian regime. Although the U.S. has no diplomatic relations with Iran, on Friday, a spokesman for the Obama administration called on Iran to free Abedini.
“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,” National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said.
Naghmeh Abedini, 35, who was born in Tehran and moved to the U.S. with her family when she was just nine years old, has had intermittent contact with her husband, through letters smuggled out of the notorious Evin prison in Tehran and, occasionally, when relatives in Iran are able to speak to him by phone and conference her in. In those cases, the voice coming through the static buoys her spirits, yet leaves her feeling helpless.
“When I do get to speak with him, I don’t even know what to say," she said. "What do you say when you only have four minutes?”
There is so much - maybe too much - that she wants to tell the man she met in 2001 when she travelled back to her homeland.
“I was attending a service and I noticed him from the crowd," Naghmeh recalls. "I felt like it was love at first sight, but in the beginning I wasn’t too sure. He had asked for people to join him and help with his network of house churches. I volunteered, and over time we fell in love.”
Saeed and Naghmeh married in 2004 in Iran and, under then-President Mohammad Khatami’s rule, they were allowed to wed in a Christian ceremony. But tolerance for Christianity - particularly the evangelism Saeed Abedini practiced - was being squeezed out by darker forces in the Islamic nation. Teams of young men sanctioned by Iran's mullahs were beating women on the streets for violating curfew or not dressing in traditional Muslim garb. Hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president in August of 2005, and the nation's isolation from the west worsened. By November of 2005, the Christian couple who had helped establish a network of home-based churches, was forced to flee under charges similar to those Saeed now faces.
“We lived in a nearby country until early 2006, we had to wait to come here until he was able to get a marriage visa," Nagmeh recalled.
Seven years ago, Saeed won citizenship in the U.S. and they moved to the American west to raise their son and daughter, now ages 4 and 6. Yet Saeed Abedini felt the calling of his extended family in Iran - and the calling of his ministry there.
“He loves the U.S., but he missed his family,” Naghmeh said. “In 2009, we decided to go back and face the charges and take a chance. We thought he would have been arrested once we arrived at the airport, but nothing happened.”
The arrest came when they returned to the airport for their flight home. Authorities later freed Abedini to go back to the U.S., but warned him not to do anymore evangelical work in Iran. But, according to Nagmeh, the couple was expressly told they were free to return to their native country for secular humanitarian efforts.
Last summer, Abedini journeyed to Iran to help open an orphanage with the state’s backing, according to Nagmeh. He was pulled off a bus and placed under house arrest, then moved to Evin prison in September. It is the same prison where another pastor, Youcef Nadarkhani, an Iranian Christian pastor, was held for three years before being freed amid an international media outcry.
The specific allegations against Abedini have not been made public, but supporters say it is almost certainly related to his conversion from Islam to Christianity back in 2000 and his subsequent efforts to spread the gospel. Even Abedini does not know the charges against him, according to a letter he recently was able to sneak out of the prison, which is known for holding intellectuals and political prisoners.
“This is the process in my life today: one day I am told I will be freed and allowed to see my kids on Christmas (which was a lie) and the next day I am told I will hang for my faith in Jesus,” Abedini wrote. “One day there are intense pains after beatings in interrogations, the next day they are nice to you and offer you candy.”
For Naghmeh, the hardest part is not being able to support the man she loves in person.
“The government has made it clear that if I set foot in Iran, I will immediately be arrested,” she said. “One of my heart’s desires is to be able to go see him, but I won’t be able to be there for him.”
Jordan Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice, which has fought to bring attention to Abedini's plight, said he hopes the administration will continue to press Iran on the matter.
“The statement released today is encouraging," Sekulow said. "It is our hope that the Secretary of State and the State Department fully engage this issue and call for his immediate release. We urge them to utilize all of their diplomatic resources to secure the freedom of this U.S. citizen who is being persecuted and facing grave danger because of his religious beliefs.”