Special Report by ICC
01/24/2013 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – Christians around the world are praying for the ongoing trial of Pastor Saeed Abedini, a U.S. citizen who faces charges of undermining the Iranian government by allegedly turning people away from Islam – a charge that can attract death penalty. The verdict can be expected next week.
The charges are related to his work among house-churches, which he stopped in 2005 after being forced to flee his native nation. His case is being heard by one of Iran’s notorious “hanging judges,” Pir-Abassi, known for issuing numerous death sentences to human rights activists. In 2011, the European Union named the Judge as an individual subject to sanctions for human rights violations.
At his trial on Jan. 22, which was held in the absence of Saeed and his Iranian attorney, prosecutors brought testimony against the pastor, attempting to force lay church leaders to testify against him, according to American Center for Law and Justice, which is legally representing him in the United States.
A day earlier, on Jan. 21, the only day when Abedini was allowed in the courtroom, the prosecution presented evidence against him, portraying him as a politically subversive influence on the youth of the nation and a threat to the national security of Iran. Among his family members, only his father was permitted to be in court.
Abedini was given less than 24 hours to meet his lawyer and prepare a defense for his trial. His lawyer is Dr. Naser Sarbazi, a Muslim man determined to uphold and protect the rights of all individuals to practice their faith freely. At the trial, he presented strong arguments to show that Abedini’s work was not driven by political motivations and presented no threat to Iran’s national security. Abedini himself was able to share from the Bible and clarify that he was a follower of Jesus Christ, not a political person with ulterior motives.
A verdict for the trial is expected as early as next week. But, despite the strong defense, Abedini faces long imprisonment or even death by hanging. Aidan Clay, ICC’s Regional Manager for the Middle East says, “Despite the recent release of Youcef Nadarkhani, Vruir Avanessian and several other Iranian Christians jailed for their faith, there has been no change in the Iranian government's tactics of intimidation, harassment, abuse and other brutal methods used to end the growing underground church in the country. Pastor Saeed Abedini is among the latest victims of such persecution, having now spent six months behind bars. Despite being a U.S. citizen, it was not until last week that the U.S. State Department condemned his arrest, but failing to call for his immediate release.”
Abedini was born in Iran, but married an American woman and was granted U.S. citizenship. In 2009, he returned to Iran, but was arrested while catching a return flight to the U.S. and sent back with a warning to stop his evangelistic work - something he had already done. Last year, he returned to Iran to work on a non-sectarian orphanage project, with the State’s support. But he was subjected to house arrest. After weeks, he was transferred to the notorious Evin prison known for vicious crimes against humanity including rape, torture and murder.
While in prison, Abedini wrote letters to his wife, describing the torture he had to endure. He was regularly beaten during interrogations. He suffered psychological abuse, being told that he would be released to see his children for Christmas and then being told that he would hang for his beliefs. An amount was set for his release on bail, but when the money was raised, it was rejected without good reason.
Abedini’s arrest typifies Iran’s determined efforts to create an atmosphere of fear for Christians - arresting, releasing and then re-arresting them, often without pressing any formal charges. Clay also said, “Many other Christians, including several who were arrested during the Christmas season, also languish in Iranian prisons.” Among them is Pastor Behnam Irani, who is serving a six-year sentence and has been denied medical care despite his critical condition.
On Christmas Day, Mostafa Bordbar, a covert to Christianity from Tehran, was arrested and is being held in Evin prison. His family’s attempts to bail him out have been repeatedly rejected as well.
Recently, U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, recently said over 300 Christians have been “arbitrarily arrested and detained” in the country since June 2010.
Abedini’s trial comes right after the release of another Iranian pastor, Youcef Nadarkhani. The pastor had been freed in November 2012 after spending about three years in jail, but was re-arrested on Christmas Day from northern Gilan Province. He is among many Christian scapegoats in prison, who are being used to send a message to other believers, to suppress Christian belief and church activity in the nation.
Christian persecution in Iran increased after June 2009, when the results of the presidential elections – which showed a sweeping victory for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – were disputed amid allegations of extensive rigging. To deal with growing opposition to his allegedly illegal rule, Ahmadinejad began to restrict all civil liberties – including religious freedom – and attack protesters. Arresting and intimidating Christians is partly due to that political program.
Despite his trials, Abedini has shown great faith and endurance. In his letter to his wife, he wrote, “When for 120 days you are asleep in a room with one big light that is constantly lit and does not separate day or night and when you can only see true sunlight for a few minutes a week, that's when you are becoming His Workmanship and you can be a vessel in bringing His Kingdom in a dark place and you are able to share the Gospel of Peace and Life to the dying world...And this is where you learn you can love your enemies with all of your heart.”
With the impending verdict on Abedini’s trial, there is increasing pressure on the White House to intercede for him and ensure that no nation is permitted to wrongly arrest and torture a U.S. citizen under any circumstances. At the same time, the global Church is united in prayer for his release and safe return to his wife and two children in the U.S.