A powerful lawmaker called on President Obama to "personally add your voice" to the effort to get a Christian pastor who is an American citizen freed from an Iranian prison where he's been sentenced to eight years for practicing his faith.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, (R-S.C.), made the appeal in a letter to the president, calling on Obama to take up the cause of Saeed Abedini, a 32-year-old married father of two. Abedini left his home in Boise, Idaho, last summer to go back to his homeland to help build an orphanage, according to his supporters. He was arrested and imprisoned on charges of compromising national security, charges that appear to date back to his 2000 conversion from Islam to Christianity and subsequent evangelizing before moving to the U.S.
"While I fully recognize the myriad national security issues posed by the fanatical theocracy in Tehran, I believe the case of Pastor Abedini deserves your full attention and engagement,” Graham, who sits on the Senate Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law, said in the letter. “To this end, it is imperative that you personally add your voice to those calling for Pastor Abedini’s immediate and unconditional release.
“There is no better symbol of American values, specifically freedom of religion, or demonstration of loyalty to the welfare of our citizens abroad than vocal and sustained support directly from the President of the United States,” the letter continued.
The White House did not respond immediately to a request for comment. Earlier this week, White House press secretary Jay Carney did raise the issue after taking a question about it at a press briefing.
"We condemn Iran's continued violation of the universal right of freedom of religion, and we call on the Iranian authorities to release Mr. Abedini," Carney said.
Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice, which has advocated on Abedini's behalf, called Graham's letter significant.:
"Sen. Graham's letter is important because it's the first request that we are aware of made from a member of Congress to urge the president to become directly and personally involved in this case," Sekulow said. "With a U.S. citizen facing eight years in one of the most deadly prisons in Iran -- simply because of his religious beliefs -- Sen. Graham is absolutely correct in his assessment that President Obama must fully engage this case and personally call for Pastor Saeed's release."
Earlier this week, newly confirmed Secretary of State John Kerry also called for Abedini’s release, after receiving a letter from Graham's Senate colleague, Marco Rubio, (R-Fla.), asking if he would press the case for freeing Abedini from the notorious Evin prison.
“We remain deeply concerned about the fairness and transparency of Mr. Abedini’s trial. I, along with the U.S. government, condemn Iran’s continued violation of the universal right of freedom of religion and call on the Iranian authorities to respect Mr. Abedini’s human rights and release him,” Kerry wrote in response to Rubio.
It is not clear what the Obama administration can do to try and secure Abedini's freedom, given that the U.S. has not had diplomatic relations with Iran since the 1979 revolution in which 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days at the U.S. Embassy. But supporters of Abedini say the Obama administration, and particularly outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have not been vocal enough in denouncing his imprisonment.
The exact crimes Abedini is accused of only became public last week, when the prosecutor formally charged him with “attempting to undermine state security by creating a network of Christian churches in private homes.” Supporters of Abedini believe the charges stem from his 2000 conversion to Christianity and his involvement several years ago with house churches in Iran.