Efforts have intensified to free an American citizen imprisoned in Iran for his work as a Christian pastor, with religious liberty advocates appealing to both the United Nations and U.S. lawmakers.
“Saeed’s imprisonment is a clear violation of the rule of law and of his fundamental right to exercise his religion of choice,” said Dr. Grégor Puppinck, director general of the European Centre for Law and Justice.
Puppinck testified on March 5 before the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, where he called for the pastor’s release from prison.
Abedini, who grew up as an Iranian Muslim, converted to Christianity in 2000 and has been a United States citizen since 2010, following his marriage to his American wife.
The pastor worked with house churches in Iran until the government ordered him to stop doing so in 2009, when he turned his attention to non-religious orphanages.
However, despite complying with the regime’s demands, he was arrested in September 2012 during a visit to work with these orphanages. Charged with posing a threat to national security for his earlier work with the churches, Abedini was sentenced to eight years in Tehran’s Evin Prison, which has a record of harsh treatment for its inmates.
The European law center and its American counterpart have been working to secure Abedini’s liberty, petitioning the U.S. State Department and organizing a petition that has garnered nearly 450,000 signatures.
According to the American Center of Law and Justice, while in prison, “Saeed has been repeatedly beaten, denied access to medical care, subjected to intense interrogations, and threatened with death all because he peacefully exercised his Christian faith.”
In addition, the organization says that while the pastor was arrested for threatening national security, “Iranian media and his attorney have reported that Saeed was put on trial solely because of his religious activities.”
“It is absolutely imperative to stand up for the most basic of human rights,” the group stressed.
Puppinck’s testimony appealed to the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which prohibit “restricting religious freedom on the basis of national security.”
He argued that Abedini’s “peaceful, private religious gatherings are not a threat to national security” and emphasized that “the primary holders of religious freedom are the individuals.”
In order to ensure that individuals are not “prisoners” of their religious groups, he explained, “their individual right and freedom to change religious affiliation, to convert, must be protected, especially for those who leave the majority religion to join a minority religion.”
The American Center for Law and Justice also plans to call attention to Abedini’s plight at a March 15 hearing before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, a bi-partisan council in the U.S. House of Representatives that aims to “promote, defend and advocate internationally recognized human rights norms.”
“This hearing represents a significant opportunity to elevate Pastor Saeed's plight and to encourage our State Department and White House to engage this case at the highest levels,” said the group’s chief counsel, Jay Sekulow.
“For a U.S. citizen to be facing years in one of Iran's most deadly prisons - beaten and abused daily - simply because of his Christian faith - is unconscionable,” he stressed.
Sekulow will be testifying at the hearing, along with Abedini’s wife, Naghmeh.
He explained that “more than 100 members of Congress” have recognized the religious freedom threat found in Abedini’s imprisonment and “have called for the release” of the pastor.
The American center for law and justice is “grateful for the opportunity” to stand up for Abedini and for “the human rights and religious freedom of those who are facing similar situations because of their faith,” he added.