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As we prepare to celebrate Christmas, a time of joy, hope, and peace on earth, we are reminded that in this world not everyone is free to celebrate the birth of Christ.
Last year, we told you about the death sentence against a Christian pastor in Iran, Youcef Nadarkhani. His only “crime” was his faith in Jesus Christ, convicted of apostasy (converting from Islam to Christianity). Hundreds of thousands of people around the world demanded his freedom. After an immense international campaign for his release, working closely with his brave Muslim attorney in Iran and world leaders, Iran relented, releasing him and dropping his apostasy charges in September.
Nadarkhani was not the only imprisoned pastor in the world, but he did become the face of Christian persecution.
Today, another Christian pastor languishes in one of Iran’s most notoriously abusive prisons – this time an American citizen. Saeed Abedini, a 32-year-old Iranian-born American citizen, was arrested because of his faith while visiting his family in Iran.
After converting from Islam to Christianity, Abedini helped lead underground churches in Iran and began humanitarian efforts to establish an orphanage for the children of Iran.
In September, when traveling back to Iran to visit his parents and continue his humanitarian work, Abedini was stopped by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. He has now been illegally imprisoned in Iran since September.
We at the ACLJ have been working on his case for a number of months, representing his wife, Naghmeh, and family here in America. Abedini’s wife explained, “When he became a Christian, he became a criminal in his own country. His passion was to reach the people of Iran. . . . He comes from a very close-knit family, and he loved evangelizing and passing out Bibles on the streets of Tehran. This was his passion.”
As she recently told our radio audience in an interview with Jordan, her husband’s imprisonment has been horrifically hard on their family, especially during this Christmas season. Their two young children miss their daddy, and their 6-year-old daughter has been crying because she is afraid she won’t be able to remember her daddy’s voice.
Abedini’s family in Iran is now under house arrest, and his wife and children are here in the United States.
Why was he arrested – his prior involvement in starting house churches in Iran. His wife explained: “It was just growing so fast. They see the underground churches as a threat and they see Christianity as a tool from the West to undermine them. . . . They think if the country becomes more Christian, they are no longer under Islamic authority. That’s why it’s a threat.”
As Abedini said in a recent letter from prison:
We have confirmed that Abedini after having been moved from solitary confinement, has sustained severe physical abuse in Evin prison.
The Iranian government is sensitive to international pressure, as evidenced by Nadarkhani’s case. But now, we have an Iranian-born Christian, an American citizen, being punished for his beliefs. His alleged “crime” is nothing more than converting to Christianity and proclaiming his Christian faith. His imprisonment and abuse in Iran violates international human rights and religious freedom laws.
No one, especially an American citizen, should be brutalized and imprisoned for his faith. Thousands of people have already joined on to the ACLJ’s petition for his release. Like in the case of Nadarkhani, we are working with Members of Congress, the State Department, and world leaders to call for his release.
The U.S. State Department has publicly stated that they are “aware of the case,”but they must take direct action, as they did for Nadarkhani, and even more so in light of the fact that Abedini is an American citizen.
Though Iran released Nadarkhani, it then imprisoned his Iranian attorney, and at about the same time arrested and imprisoned Abedini.
Pressure must be placed on the Iranian regime to release this innocent man, imprisoned solely for his faith.
This Christmas as we celebrate the birth of Jesus, we must redouble our efforts to ensure that people everywhere in the world are free to worship Him, without threat of persecution or imprisonment.
UPDATE on Dec. 26: Nadarkhani was reportedly re-arrested and imprisoned on Christmas Day. This incident involving a pastor on one of the holiest of Christian holidays sends a stark message that the Iranian regime is stepping up its persecution of Christians.
Jordan Sekulow is executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ). Matthew Clark is an attorney at the ACLJ.