Supporters of the American pastor held in Iran and facing a possible death sentence for his faith say the State Department is not doing enough to win his release.
Pastor Saeed Abedini, a Christian minister and American citizen who lives in Boise Idaho with his wife and two young children, has been held in Tehran's infamous Evin Prison since September for allegedly evangelizing in his native country. Despite being held for months before formal charges were revealed at his trial this week, the State Department has not issued a statement or made any public demand that Iran release him, say his supporters.
“Every day counts. He is being tortured. They (State Department) can do so much more,” said Abedini's wife, Naghmeh Abedini. “I’ve been so heartbroken. It’s as though we are letting the Iranian government lead with their interpretation of what he’s done wrong instead of protecting our American ideals.”
Last week about 50 members of the House of Representatives signed and delivered a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s office urging her to leave “no stone unturned” in her efforts to bring Pastor Saeed back home. Rep. Trent Franks, (R-Ariz.), said the State Department is ignoring its most basic duty by not doing more to help Abedini, 32.
“If our own State Department fails to advocate for a U.S. citizen who faces injustice in a country that is widely regarded as one of the most egregious human rights abusers, then I believe they have failed in one of their most fundamental responsibilities to American citizens,” said Franks, who chairs the House Bipartisan International Religious Freedom Caucus. “Every U.S. citizen should have the assurance that the U.S. government will come vigorously to their defense in a time of need, especially when they are unjustly tried in a foreign country. At the very least, Secretary Clinton should publicly call for the unequivocal release of Saeed Abedini.”
The department took similar criticism in recent months, when former Marine Jon Hammar was held in a Mexican prison on what supporters considered a trumped-up gun charge. Although Hammar's family expressed frustration with the department during his six months in prison, officials were able to get him support through a consulate, and State Department officials were credited with helping to win his release just prior to Christmas. By contrast, in 2009, when two reporters from Current TV wandered into North Korea while on assignment and were imprisoned, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton personally called for their release and the department repeated demanded that they be freed. They eventually were freed after former President Bill Clinton traveled to North Korea to press the case in person.
State Department spokesman Peter Velasco said the American diplomatic arm is closely monitoring the case and has called for the Swiss, who do have diplomatic relations with Iran, to grant consular access to Abedini. But because Iran does not recognize the U.S. half of Abedini's dual citizenship, they have blocked him from any consulate assistance. He became a U.S. citizen in 2010 when he married Naghmeh, an American.
When asked if the State Dept. has any plans to make a public push for the pastor’s release, Velasco said, “At this point, not that I’m aware of.”
Diplomatic relations or not, a forceful statement from Hillary Clinton or Sen. John Kerry, who has been nominated to succeed her, would carry a lot of weight, said Tiffany Barrans, international legal director at the American Center for Law and Justice, the organization representing Abedini’s U.S.-based family.
“We have had some action from State Dept, and we are grateful for that since this case went public, we just don’t understand why there hasn’t been a statement from the Secretary of State," Burns said. "Why are they waiting? Why didn’t begin advocating on his behalf from the moment they found out he was arrested?”
Earlier this month, State Department officials referred questions about Abedini from FoxNews.com to the U.S. National Security Council.
“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," NSC spokesman Tommy Vietor said. "We call upon Iranian authorities to release him immediately.”
Abedini’s trial began Monday in Iran, the only day he was allowed to present a defense before Judge Abbas Pir-Abassi, the Iranian court’s infamous “hanging judge.” For the first time, the court prosecutor informed Abedini that he was being charged for undermining national security by creating and expanding the network of Christian house churches in Iran and on charges of brainwashing Iranian youth away from Islam and converting them to Christianity. But Abedini and his attorneys were shut out of the trial after the first day, according to his attorneys. Following the first day of trial, the state-run media reported that Abedini would be freed on bail, but his family members in Iran said their offer to post bail was rebuffed by court officials.
More recently, Abedini's family went to visit him at Evin Prison and was turned away by guards who said he is no longer there, but refused to say where he is now being held.
More than a decade ago, Abedini worked as a Christian leader and community organizer developing Iran’s underground home church communities for Christian converts who are forbidden from praying in public churches. He was arrested in 2005, but released after pledging never to evangelize in Iran again. When he returned last summer to help build a state-run, secular orphanage, Iranian police pulled him off a bus and imprisoned him, say his supporters. At trial, the court brought evidence that dated back to the year 2000, the year that Abedini converted from Islam to Christianity.
Naghmeh Abedini has not been able to travel to Iran to see her husband out of fear she will also be arrested. She is frustrated that her adopted homeland isn't doing more for her husband.
“Imagine your own husband or father taken from you for so long," she said. "What would you do? You would do everything in your power. I would want the State Dept. to do everything in their power to get him out and bring him home.”