American Pastor Abedini in grave danger in Iranian prison

It happened suddenly and without explanation. U.S. citizen Pastor Saeed Abedini is now in grave danger – his life is at risk after a very troubling development just days ago in Iran.

For more than a year, Pastor Saeed has been imprisoned in Iran because of his Christian faith. He’s been serving an eight-year sentence for "crimes against the security of Iran" in Evin Prison in Tehran – one of the most notorious prisons in Iran.

On Sunday, he was transferred to Rajai Shahr Prison in Karaj – a brutal facility that is much more obscure than Evin Prison, and even more dangerous.

For Pastor Saeed, a bad situation has now gotten much worse.

Don’t get me wrong. Evin Prison was not good in any way. Pastor Saeed suffered beatings there that resulted in internal bleeding and other serious injuries. But, by all accounts, Rajai Shahr Prison is even more dangerous – more deadly.

The prison houses Iran’s most violent criminals – including murderers and rapists. Pastor Saeed now faces life-threatening treatment from inside -- from his cellmates and from prison officials, too.

Just days before Pastor Saeed was moved Rajai Shahr, two prisoners – a man and a woman – were executed at there, according to news reports.

Rajai Shahr Prison is a place they send you to disappear.

What goes on inside this prison is well known to human rights organizations and those familiar with the Iranian prison system.

A Dutch diplomat from the embassy in Tehran described the prison this way:

“Rajai Shahr is the place where political prisoners who are seen as a nuisance, are stowed away. Going to Karaj is a severe punishment. Once in there one stops to be a human being. One is put out of sight, even of human rights activists and the press. In Rajai Shahr, political prisoners have to share cells with dangerous criminals like murderers, rapists and drug addicts who don’t hesitate to attack their cell mates. They have nothing to lose: many of them are condemned to death anyway. Murders or unexplained deaths are a regular occurrence.”

This disturbing move came without an explanation. Pastor Saeed’s family members in Iran showed up Monday at Evin Prison for their usual weekly visit. They were told that he had been transferred. The family then drove the one and a half hours to Rajai Shahr Prison, only to be told Pastor Saeed would not be permitted to have visitors.

None of this, of course, happens in a vacuum.

Anti-American sentiment in Iran is on the rise. Thousands took to the streets on Monday chanting “Death to America” – a strong message from the opposition to Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani. He faces growing criticism from hardliners for his pledge of moderation and for his historic outreach during his visit to the United States in September.

The pressure is building. It’s clear that the Islamic radicals don’t want moderation. They’re not interested in improving relations with the “Great Satan.” And none of that bodes well for an American pastor imprisoned in Iran.

During this year’s historic trip to America, Iran’s president re-opened the lines of communication with our leadership and in a 15-minute telephone call, President Obama called on Iran to release Pastor Saeed and return him to his family.

That was a critical step. It was one that raised the hopes and expectations for Pastor Saeed’s family – providing a glimmer of hope that Pastor Saeed would ultimately be released.

But with this latest development, that glimmer of hope has turned to despair.

Pastor Saeed’s wife, Naghmeh, and their two young children, are devastated. “I am more concerned now about his safety than at any other time during his imprisonment,” Naghmeh said.

“I can only imagine the torment and anguish he is experiencing. He is truly defenseless in this prison -- defenseless from the abuse and violence of other prisoners -- defenseless from a radical government that continues to violate his rights.”

President Obama did the right thing in September when he called on the Iran’s president to release Pastor Saeed.

Now, at this most critical juncture – with Pastor Saeed’s life at risk – it is vital that President Obama re-engage on this issue, that he speak out forcefully and directly. That he raise Pastor Saeed’s case at the highest level and demand that Iran release him.

Naghmeh Abedini is counting on the U.S. government to save her husband’s life.

And now more than ever, she is relying on her friends, her supporters and her faith: “During this most difficult time, I am strengthened by my faith in Jesus Christ and I continue to pray for my husband's safety and his release. I am also very grateful for those who support Saeed and our family.”

This U.S. citizen must not be forgotten. Pastor Saeed must not be permitted to just “disappear.”