By Ben Klayman
BOISE (Reuters) - Naghmeh Abedini is looking forward to reuniting next week with her husband, Saeed, the Iranian-American pastor freed on Saturday after more than three years in an Iranian prison.
But she's not rushing the reunion.
In an interview at her parent’s home in Boise, Idaho on Wednesday, Abedini said that rebuilding their marriage after her husband's imprisonment will take time.
The relationship, she said, has been strained in recent months by the publication of an email she sent to friends and supporters late last year. Her note described “physical, emotional, psychological and sexual” abuse by her husband, who she said was addicted to pornography.
Reuters could not independently confirm Abedini’s allegations about her husband.
Saeed Abedini was traveling to Asheville, North Carolina on Thursday and could not be reached for comment.
Suzan Johnson Cook, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom under Obama for more than two years until late 2013, said she was not aware of any abuse allegations during the time she advocated on Saeed Abedini’s behalf.
“I dealt with it strictly from a political standpoint,” she said. “I came to know her through the meetings at the State Department, but in terms of private life, that wasn’t my business."
Saeed Abedini, 35, a naturalized U.S. citizen, was sentenced by an Iranian court in 2013 to eight years in prison for allegedly compromising Iran's national security by setting up home-based Christian churches there. He was arrested after returning to Iran for what was supposed to be a short trip to set up an orphanage.
"I have hope that we can work through all the issues and we can restore our marriage,” Naghmeh Abedini, 38, told Reuters in a wide-ranging interview. “My Christian faith does give me a lot of hope in that."
Naghmeh Abedini said she expects the family will enter counseling, and that she will continue working to promote religious freedom and bring attention to Christian persecution.
In the first months of her husband’s confinement, Abedini said, their contact was limited to what she called “phone-to-phone calls.” He would occasionally be allowed to call his parents in Tehran, and they would then dial her on a separate line and hold the phones together. His parents subsequently moved to the United States.
“I could barely hear him. He could barely hear me,” Naghmeh Abedini recalled. “I just remember yelling into the phone, 'We're going to get you out! Hang in there!’”
Later, she said, the couple communicated directly on a number of occasions by phone or Skype. During that time, Naghmeh said, her husband became increasingly abusive, possibly because of his long confinement. She declined to elaborate on the nature of the abusive behavior.
Half a dozen Saeed Abedini supporters reached by Reuters all said they had no direct knowledge of any abuse.
Mark DeMoss, a spokesman for Christian evangelist Rev. Franklin Graham, who advocated for Saeed’s release from prison, said, “I can't speak to his thoughts or reaction to anything Naghmeh has said or written about their marriage.”
Luke Caldwell, a family friend and son of the founder of Cavalry Chapel where the Abedinis attend church, described their reunion as a "complex situation" that requires "a lot of prayer and support.”
"You wish it was as easy as, everyone's fine, but 3-1/2 years of separation and disconnection,” he said. “Ultimately, they need to reunite that love and that connection.”
Graham and other faith leaders took up the cause of Saeed Abedini, whom they saw as a symbol of Christian persecution.
Politicians, too, advocated on his behalf. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz prayed for Abedini outside the White House, and Donald Trump hosted Naghmeh Abedini at a meeting in New York. President Obama, too, spoke with her, promising that he would do all he could to secure her husband’s release.
Saeed Abedini, who arrived in the United States on Thursday, will spend several days with his parents at a North Carolina retreat run by Graham, his wife said. She said she and their children - Rebekka, 9, and Jacob, 7 - will join him there on Monday.
North Carolina Rep. Robert Pittenger, who spoke with Saeed at a U.S. military hospital in Germany where the Idaho pastor received medical attention, said on Wednesday that Saeed was “in great shape” physically and looked “strong.”
At times, Abedini was convinced he wouldn’t make it out of jail alive, Pittenger said, but his captors began treating him better in the last months of his ordeal.
“He’s been through some pretty harsh treatment,” said Pittenger, who spent three years advocating for Abedini’s release. “He said, ‘I’m a changed person. I’ll never be the same after what I’ve been through.’”
Pittenger added: “He wants to be a good husband and father.”
“CRAZY ONE-YEAR MISSION”
Saeed and Naghmeh Abedini met in Iran in 2002, while she was there on what she says was a “crazy one-year mission” to share her Christian faith with her Muslim relatives. Captivated by Saeed’s religious passion, and his work in establishing home-based churches, Naghmeh, returned to Iran in 2003. The couple married about a year later.
“He just grabbed my attention,” she said. “He was really passionately worshipping. I feel like there was a light on him.”
Abedini said that she and her twin brother converted to Christianity from Islam when they were 9 years old, soon after moving to the United States with their parents to escape the war with Iraq. She said they were introduced to the religion by a family member living in the United States.
At the time, she said, her Muslim parents were horrified by the conversion, but 13 years later, they and her younger sister also embraced Christianity.
Naghmeh Abedini’s parents declined to be interviewed.
Saeed Abedini, who became a Christian in 2000, came to the attention of Iranian authorities because of his work encouraging home-based Christian churches, his wife said . After he was taken in for questioning in late 2005, the couple left the country rather than risk arrest.
United Nations human rights officials have repeatedly called on Iran to stop detaining Christians on vague national security charges.
Iranian officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the circumstances of Abedini’s legal troubles and imprisonment in Iran.
When the Abedinis and their children returned to visit his family in 2009, Naghmeh Abedini said, Saeed was under house arrest for three months, during which time he was questioned repeatedly for up to 14 hours at a time.
Another family visit to Iran in 2011 was cut short by fears of another arrest, Naghmeh Abedini said, causing her to decide never to return. Her husband went back in 2012, however, with plans to establish an orphanage. He was placed under house arrest in June of that year and imprisoned in late September.
"It was probably not the smartest idea to go back, with all the history,” Naghmeh Abedini said, “but he did it, and as a wife, I just let him.”
PUBLIC ADVOCACY, PRIVATE PAIN
During most of her husband’s time in prison, Abedini served as the public face of the campaign for his release. But their private conversations, she said, became ever more fraught.
“I just couldn't understand - the more I fought for him the more abusive he was becoming,” she said.
Because of that, and out of concern that she wasn’t spending enough time with her children, Naghmeh Abedini decided to pull back from her advocacy work in the fall of 2015. At that time, she sent the emails about her marriage that attracted so much attention. She said she was “very upset” when they were made public, in a Christianity Today article, and that her husband was “devastated.”
"I don't know what's next, and that's OK,” she said. “Right now, in my life, I'm at a place of complete unknown, and I've come to find peace with that."
(Additional reporting by Heather Somerville in San Francisco, Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and Louis Charbonneau in New York; Editing by Sue Horton and Brian Thevenot)