When Saeed Abedini returned to the United States after 1,267 days confined in an Iranian jail, he didn’t come straight home to Idaho. First, he spent five days at a retreat in Asheville, N.C.
During her nearly four years of pushing for the release of her husband, Naghmeh Abedini enlisted the help of three prominent North Carolinians: the Rev. Franklin Graham, U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger and the Rev. David Chadwick.
The three friends spoke out on Saeed’s behalf, working to keep his imprisonment in the public eye and to pressure American officials to call for his release.
And after Saeed was released earlier this month as part of a prisoner swap, they visited him in Europe and provided space for what was originally expected to be a long visit by the family to North Carolina.
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Saeed, 35, grew up in Iran and is a former Muslim who converted to Christianity in 2000, moved to Idaho with Naghmeh in 2005 and became a dual U.S.-Iranian citizen in 2010. For some time in Iran, he organized underground “house churches,” where groups of Christians worshiped together.
The Iranian government initially tolerated house churches, but eventually cracked down on them. An independent expert appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council has noted that nearly 400 Christians have been arrested in Iran since 2010. Most were converts from Muslim backgrounds or ministered to Iranian Muslims. Like Abedini, they were accused of threatening national security.
On a 2009 family visit to Iran, Saeed was detained at the airport and he agreed to cease all house church activities. For the next few years, he traveled back and forth to Iran to build an orphanage. But he was detained again in July 2012 on charges of evangelizing and sentenced to eight years in prison.
The religious nature of the case especially resonated among U.S. Christians. As part of her efforts to secure her husband’s freedom, Naghmeh in mid-2013 reached out to Graham, the son of evangelist Billy Graham and the CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and humanitarian group Samaritan’s Purse.
“He, like many people of faith in this country, was outraged that someone could be imprisoned for his faith,” said Mark DeMoss, Graham’s spokesman. “He was determined that Saeed’s case would not be forgotten in the United States.”
Naghmeh also grew to know Chadwick, who twice interviewed her for a weekly radio program he hosts in Charlotte. She also spoke before the congregation of his Forest Hill Church in November 2014.
In August 2013, the United Nations Human Rights Council declared Abedini’s imprisonment was “arbitrary” and violated the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, of which Iran is a signatory.
Soon after, Graham and Chadwick approached Pittenger, a Republican who represents the Charlotte area. The congressman organized three bipartisan letters signed by dozens of members of Congress and sent to President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry.
Another letter, signed by 80 members, asked Pope Francis to intercede. Last September, Pittenger arranged for Naghmeh Abedini to sit in the House chamber for the Catholic pontiff’s address to Congress.
And, Pittenger introduced a bipartisan House resolution charging that Saeed had been “arbitrarily detained, tortured and held in solitary confinement because he is a Christian.”
In an address to House members earlier this year, Pittenger criticized Iran’s lack of religious tolerance.
“On paper, Iran recognizes the basic human right of religious freedom,” the congressman said. “In practice, the Iranian government routinely violates the rights of Christians, Baha’is, Sunni Muslims and other religious minorities.”
Both Obama, who met with Naghmeh Abedini during a visit to Boise in January 2015, and Kerry later called for Saeed’s release. The prisoner swap, which also secured the release of three other Americans, grew out of the recent negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program and lifting related sanctions.
After the news broke, Pittenger flew to Germany as part of a U.S. delegation, meeting Saeed while he received a medical evaluation there. Chadwick and Graham applauded Saeed’s release.
“We are thrilled to hear that Pastor Saeed Abedini, an unjustly imprisoned American citizen, has been freed from captivity in Iran,” Chadwick said in a statement. “Having his wife, Naghmeh, come speak to our congregation opened our eyes to the current situation many Christians around the world — especially in the Middle East — are facing.”
After that, Saeed’s return grew more complicated. In 2007, he had pleaded guilty to one count of misdemeanor domestic assault in Ada County. Last fall, Naghmeh shocked her supporters by saying she suffered physical, emotional and psychological abuse throughout her marriage — including verbal abuse during phone calls with Saeed from prison.
On Saturday, Saeed said many of his wife’s allegations were not true. He said he plans on working to improving the couple’s marriage in private.
In the days immediately following his release, Naghmeh told reporters the couple and their two children planned to spend “weeks or months healing as a family” at the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove in Asheville, but later changed her mind and stayed in Boise.
Saeed finally arrived back on U.S. soil Jan. 21 and stayed at Graham’s center for five days. But the family’s plans regarding this last bit of North Carolina aid apparently changed, and he returned to Boise on Tuesday, using a private jet registered to Samaritan’s Purse.
On Thursday, Franklin Graham wrote in a Facebook post that he had befriended both Naghmeh and Saeed and offered to get them help.
“Clearly, there is a great need for prayer for their relationship and their family,” Graham wrote.
“God has answered prayer by bringing about Saeed’s release from prison, and now, Satan would like nothing more than to continue to destroy their lives. It is my prayer that this will not happen.”
Saeed Abedini ‘hoping and praying for healing and restoration’ in marriage
Despite “great stress” in his marriage, Saeed Abedini said Saturday he loves his wife, Naghmeh, and plans to work on rebuilding their relationship.
In his first public statement since he returned to Idaho on Tuesday, Abedini said he appreciated the national attention Naghmeh brought to his case in encouraging millions of people to pray for his release from the Iranian prison where he was held for more than three and a half years.
“Naghmeh has been a hero to me and suffered enormously as a result of being 7,000 miles away from me and being a single parent to our two precious children while traveling and leading a crusade on my behalf,” Abedini wrote in a two-page statement sent to the Idaho Statesmen by his sister, Zybandeh Abedini. “I will always love her for her sacrifice.”
In November, Naghmeh Abedini wrote in two emails to supporters that she had suffered physical, emotional and psychological abuse throughout her 11-year marriage. The content of the emails were later shared with the media.
On Wednesday, Naghmeh said she regretted having hid from the public what she had lived through. She had hoped that the “horrible situation” her husband went through would bring about a spiritual change in both of them and improve their marriage. But instead, she wrote, Saeed made demands about his public image she felt she couldn’t meet and threatened that if she didn’t carry out his wishes, it would cause the end of their marriage and bring pain to their children.
On Tuesday, the same day Saeed returned to Boise, Naghmeh filed a petition for legal separation in Ada County. She also sought a temporary restraining order to prevent Saeed from taking their young son and daughter out of state or removing property.
“When I arrived there this week I was met with news that she had filed a domestic relations case, apparently in order to ensure our children could remain in the state,” Saeed wrote. “Of course, I had no intention of taking our children away from our home or our state.”
Without providing any specifics, Saeed said that “much of what I have read in Naghmeh’s posts and subsequent media reports” were untrue. He said that while he was a prisoner in Iran, he was unable to respond to her comments and accusations.
“I have chosen not to respond in the two weeks I have been back in America because I believe personal issues are best dealt with personally,” Saeed wrote.
Saeed said he seeks “God’s will” for both he and Naghmeh.
“I am a sinner, saved only by the wonderful grace of God. While I am far from perfect — as a man or as a husband, I am seeking every day to submit to God as He molds me into what He wants me to be,” he wrote.
When he returned to the United States, Saeed spent five days with his parents and sister at a North Carolina retreat operated by the Rev. Franklin Graham. He said he expected Naghmeh and their children to join him there, but they remained in Idaho.
In closing, he said he plans to work on his marriage in private and not speak in public “at least until I believe we have made significant progress in private.” He thanked people for their understanding and support.
“The God I serve today is the same God I served while being interrogated and beaten in some of the harshest prison conditions in the world and He is capable of restoring a marriage that has withstood unbelievable pressure. I ask for prayer for another victory,” he wrote.
The complete statement is available online at www.idahostatesman.com