.- Human rights advocates gathered in front of the White House last week to pray and raise awareness for Christian pastor Saeed Abedini, a U.S. citizen who has been held in an Iranian prison for the past year.
Jordan Sekulow, director of policy and international operations for the American Center for Law and Justice, told CNA that the vigil’s first goal is to “keep Saeed alive.”
“The second,” he continued, “is to bring him home. The third goal and focus of this week is to make sure that no more Iranian officials can ever say 'I've never heard of Saeed Abedini' and make sure that the president of the United States knows that he has to speak out.”
Sekulow’s organization represents Abedini's wife, Naghmeh, in working for the pastor’s release.
The Sept. 26 protest marked the one-year anniversary of Abedini’s imprisonment in Iran’s Evin Prison on charges of threatening national security. Human rights groups, however, maintain that the pastor’s Christian faith is the real reason for his eight-year sentence.
Raised Muslim in Iran, Abedini converted to Christianity in 2000 and became a U.S. citizen in 2010 after marrying a U.S. citizen.
After his conversion, he worked with house churches throughout Iran until 2009, when the government raised objections, despite the fact that the churches are technically legal in the country. Since then, human rights groups say that the pastor has worked solely with non-religious orphanages in the country. He was arrested in the fall of 2012 during a visit to one of these orphanages.
According to his family, Abedini has suffered beatings and numerous injuries – which have gone untreated – during his time in prison. Although he sought an appeal of his conviction, his request was denied, leaving his eight-year sentence in place.
Since his imprisonment, numerous countries and officials have called for Abedini's release, including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
Roughly 100 people attended the Washington, D.C., vigil on Sept. 26, which coincided with other vigils throughout the country and around the world, in countries including Kenya, Russia and Pakistan.
Local pastors attended the vigil, along with Congressional Representatives Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), Robert Pittenger (R-N.C.) and Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas). Abedini has received bipartisan support from some 100 congressman and senators during his imprisonment, in the form of letters and statements asking for his release.
An official at the Sept. 26 event read a letter to Abedini’s wife, written by Princeton University law professor Robert P. George, who chairs the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
“I am saddened and outraged that an Iranian appeals court last month upheld your husband's eight-year prison term,” George's letter said. “I am further outraged that your husband never was afforded any semblance of due process, and his trail was both a sham and a miscarriage of justice.”
Jane B. Zimmerman, deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, also attended the vigil, assuring that the freedom “to practice one's own religion is a fundamental right enshrined in international law.”
“The United States government defends the universal rights of pastor Abedini and others who face ill-treatment and discrimination simply for exercising those rights,” she affirmed.
The Washington, D.C., vigil took place amid meetings between U.S. and Iranian diplomats, considered the highest-level meeting between the two countries in decades.
According to Fox News, U.S. President Barack Obama voiced concern about Abedini in a historic Sept. 27 phone call with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Abedini’s wife called this report “the most encouraging news” she had heard since her husband’s imprisonment a year ago.
Sekulow urged religious freedom supporters to continue calling for the pastor’s release through letters and an online petition. Such efforts are crucial for Abedini, he said, because “every day in that prison is like a potential death sentence.”