Abedini released in Iran, Boise church members celebrate
After more than three years in an Iranian prison, Saeed Abedini, a pastor from Boise whose jailing galvanized U.S. Christians, was among the five Americans released Saturday.
But what life Abedini will be returning to in Boise after his long absence is an open question. His wife, Naghmeh, stunned her husband’s many supporters in November by publicly accusing her husband of abuse.
Still, she woke her children up first thing Saturday to tell them the news.
“The children are excited. They’re beside themselves,” she told the Idaho Statesman. “They keep asking me, ‘When are we going to see him?’”
U.S. officials confirmed that Abedini was one of four imprisoned Americans released, including a Washington Post reporter, Jason Rezaian; Amir Hekmati, a former Marine from Flint, Mich.; and Nosratallah Khosravi-Roodsari, who was identified only as a businessman.
A fifth American, identified in news reports as a student, Matthew Trevithick, also was released, though his freedom was considered separate from the other four’s.
Naghmeh Abedini said she didn’t know when her husband would be back in the U.S. A U.S. official said work was proceeding Sunday morning in Iran to get the four prisoners on a plane, while the student had already left. A U.S. official confirmed Sunday that all prisoners who wanted out of Iran were out of the country.
Jay Sekulow, executive director of the American Center for Law & Justice, which has been advising Naghmeh Abedini, told the Statesman that Saeed Abedini was expected to be taken on a Swiss airliner to Germany for medical tests.
“He’s faced some serious medical issues throughout this three-year process,” Sekulow said.
In return, the United States “offered clemency to seven Iranians, six of whom are dual U.S.-Iranian citizens, who had been convicted or are pending trial in the United States,” the U.S. officials said. “The United States also removed any Interpol red notices and dismissed any charges against 14 Iranians for whom it was assessed that extradition requests were unlikely to be successful.”
For many Christians, it was Abedini’s release that resonated the most. The Rev. Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, welcomed the release in a Facebook post. “I praise God for answered prayer and thank all of you who have prayed faithfully for his release!” he wrote.
Graham and scores of other religious leaders had advocated Abedini’s freedom, holding a vigil in front of the White House at one point and pressing for his release. Naghmeh Abedini met with President Barack Obama when he visited Boise last January. She said Obama promised to work to bring her husband home before his term ends next January.
“I was hoping for it, but I didn’t see it coming” so soon, she said.
The Abedini family has been backed by parishioners from their church, Calvary Chapel in Boise.
Chris Kelly Linane, who edits the Calvary Chapel radio show “Words of Life,” said the community of supporters was awestruck.
“Everybody’s saying, ‘Wow, have you heard the news about Saeed?’ And you hear the news and you’re like, ‘Wow, can that really be true, is that really happening?’”
Bob Caldwell, lead pastor for Calvary Chapel, said the congregation prayed for this news the entire time Saeed Abedini was imprisoned.
“People are, like, crazy excited. They’re so happy,” he said. “Because we’ve been carrying the burden, you know — kept it before us and kept it in our hearts. So to have it resolved, it’s just amazing. It’s beyond words.”
Abedini’s return to the United States may be the most difficult of the released prisoners, in part because of the religious aspect of his imprisonment.
Abedini converted to Christianity from Islam and holds dual U.S. and Iranian citizenship. He was arrested in September 2012 and sentenced to eight years in prison on charges of evangelizing, which the judge termed “threatening the national security of Iran.” He was reportedly beaten severely during his imprisonment and suffered internal bleeding.
In November, Naghmeh Abedini announced that after years of tirelessly advocating for her husband’s release, she would step back from the public effort to deal with what press reports described as her concerns about “his own demons.”
In a story on the website of Christianity Today, she discussed two emails she sent to supporters in which she had noted the “physical, emotional, psychological and sexual abuse (through Saeed’s addiction to pornography)” she had dealt with during her marriage.
The article said she believed Abedini’s problems had grown during his time in prison in Iran. She also asked supporters to pray for her, for their children and for her husband and his release.
In two statements provided to the Statesman at the time, Naghmeh Abedini said she regretted sending the emails.
“I was under great psychological and emotional distress. I am now taking time off to heal and to rest and to spend much needed time with my kids,” she said in November. “I would appreciate for those who care about Saeed and our family to give us time for rest and healing and to respect our privacy.”
Caldwell said the Calvary Chapel congregation wants to help Naghmeh and Saeed Abedini with problems.
“They have things they got to work out, but that’s what a church is. We’re all working stuff out,” he said. “We’re to be healers, not destroyers. And that’s what they want: to find God’s path to healing in their own relationship.
“But, primarily, Naghmeh’s just been really loyal and faithful. She’s done everything you could have imagined. I’ve never seen somebody work so hard to get a person out of prison as that girl.”
Robert Pettinger, a Republican congressman from North Carolina who has pushed for Abedini’s release, asked Idaho residents Saturday to help the Abedini family.
“Look after our friend out there,” he said. “These people are going to need support.”
Linane, of Calvary Chapel, said, “We’re all hoping and praying that Saeed is safely returned home, and then he can be with his kids and his wife, and then everything works out well.”
On Saturday, Naghmeh Abedini said that when her husband does return, they will work on returning to normal.
“(We will) just rest, heal and just see where he’s at mentally and physically and go from there,” she said.
Erin Fenner: 208-377-6207, @erinfenner. Schofield is a McClatchy special correspondent in Berlin. Charlotte Observer religion reporter Tim Funk, Statesman Breaking News Editor Nate Poppino and the Associated Press contributed.