For the past two years, Pastor Saeed Abedini has been suffering in one of the world’s cruelest prisons, Iran’s Evin Prison, simply for practicing his Christian faith. Pastor Saeed’s wife, Naghmeh, attended and spoke at this year’s Values Voter Summit in Washington, DC. I asked her about her family’s struggles, the president’s inaction and, most importantly, her and her family's unwavering faith.
Is there a certain Bible verse you’ve gone to for comfort during this trial?
“The one that has spoken to me the most has been 2 Corinthians 12: 8-10, where Paul is talking about a thorn in his side and he wants it removed. I felt with Saeed’s imprisonment, it was painful, was something in our life I wanted removed. And I felt God telling me that His grace is sufficient for me and His strength is made perfect in my weakness. And then the following verse where God says, 'Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities and distress and persecution and need' and all of that. I just have learned to really – even when I feel things are distressed or hard – to really learn to embrace, as Paul said, because it just helps me discover God in a deeper way, it breaks me in a way and takes me to more dependency on Him and prayer and more intimacy. Knowing this is being used for the gospel, it makes it really comforting.”
Pastor Saeed has refused to deny his faith and has even converted some of his fellow prisoners. Can you talk more about that?
“He’s not denied his faith and under intense persecution and torture, especially early on in his imprisonment, and he’s who he is. No matter where he’s at, loving people means sharing about how God has changed his life. So that’s been who he is. It’s not because he’s being confined. He’s just sharing about hope and life that he’s found in Christ – wherever he’s gone.”
Last year, President Obama called Iranian President Rouhani expressing his concerns about Saeed’s imprisonment. A lot of people think that he and his administration could be doing even more. Do you agree with this? (emphasis mine)
“I agree. It’s been frustrating. It took a lot of pressure from the American people for him to say something, make a phone call and then – he did mention Saeed at the prayer breakfast. But, I feel like that decision hasn’t been made to use leverage or to put pressure to bring Saeed home. I don’t know if his statements have been made to just appease me or the American people. Deep down I don’t think there has been a decision made to bring him home because I do believe if that decision had been made, he would be home right now. I believe they’re going to use all the leverage that they have for nuclear talks, and I do believe Saeed has been abandoned and forgotten in this process. Again I’m thankful for those statements, but there has to be action to back that up. It’s been two years too long.”
You’ve also spoken about how your faith in Christ has been strengthened through this trial and it’s given you an opportunity to share your faith. At the UN, you shared it with millions of people. Can your experience encourage other Christians going through trials?
“When you’re going through trials, you reach a point of desperation. And the trails can be here in America. Maybe we have fears of future, how’s my life going to look, what is my future going to look like. Fears of finances, of course a lot of families going through divorce and trauma, different things, relationship issues and I think you allow it to take you into a deeper intimacy with God. A lot of times we believe in Christ, but have we really experienced Him? One of my favorite sections of the Bible is John 15, where it talks about the vine and the branches and for the first time – I’ve been a Christian for over 30 years, I felt like I connected to the vine and when we connect to that source, God brings the fruit. We don’t really have to try too hard, we just rest in Him and are in communion with Him and I think that’s what God is calling the church to do. To just seek Him deeper and walk into a deeper intimacy. And you mentioned, I think God uses your life, anyone, it’s not necessarily how many connections you have or who you know or how much money you have. It’s once you can dig deeper to Him and connect to Him, then He can take you before the United Nations and countries and ambassadors and human rights groups, just all over. I think once you discover Him in a deeper way, you become a testimony for Christians and non-Christians alike. Like knowing Christ and making Him known. You have to know Him first, you really have to know Him. You have to experience Him, taste Him, before you can even present it to anyone else. It has to be so real in your life. Persecution and hardships, really you have to know when you’re going through a hardship. When you’re going through cancer, when you have a loved one who’s dying, when you’re going relationship trauma, whatever, you have to connect. Either you walk away and say, 'my faith is empty,' or you have to discover God and the reality of Him. Once you discover that, nothing can stop you to become a light. People are drawn to you to know about God.”
Mrs. Abedini says she's received at least 10,000 letters of support from people hoping and praying for her husband's safe return.
If anything, this trial has highlighted the importance of religious freedom. How can we not take that for granted here in the US?
“This is a core value. Of course one of the frustrating parts, is Saeed is an American citizen whose religious freedom is trampled upon and we’ve allowed Iran to do that for the past two years. But this is an important value for our nation. If we don’t speak out, if we’re not vocal about it, if we’re not taking action to defend our religious freedom, it will be taken from us. It’s slowly approaching our borders and I think it’s something that we should defend. There were lives that were paid - people paid a heavy price for freedom here. This is what makes America great. When I was a child, I came to America and discovered Christ. That’s the most beautiful part of America for me. I had the freedom to choose my religion and so it’s something we have to defend. If we don’t fight for it, it’s something we will lose. It’s not a guarantee our children will enjoy the same freedom we’re enjoying – or our children’s children. It’s a value, it’s a core value. It what makes this great nation great – allowing people to live freely, which a lot of countries don’t and it’s something we really have to stand up for.”
You have so many people praying for you and for your husband. What would you like to say to them?
“Thank you. Honestly, it gives me a lot of strength to know I’m not alone. Hebrews 13:3 says, 'Remember those as if you’re in chains with them.' A lot of times where it talks about the body of Christ that’s hurting or in prison or in chains, it just says remember. And when people are praying, or when people tell me they’re praying, or write letters, it just reminds me they’ve not forgotten us. Two years doesn’t mean Saeed’s forgotten or our family’s forgotten. That’s really what you need to hear. I know people going through a lot of suffering, I know that’s the number one comfort. At least that’s what it’s been in my family – to know you’re not alone. People are there with you, you’re not forgotten. They’re standing with you, and that’s the most comforting part of the journey.”
Abedini estimated she’s received at least 10,000 notes in the past two years.
“A lot of people send to (The American Center for Law and Justice), then some send to my church, then directly to me. I literally pick up boxes and boxes from my church every week and initially it was 20, 30, 40, 50 coming in and I would try to answer them and then it just became so overwhelming I pick and choose and answer some of them.”
She is dedicated to answering them because she knows they are sincere.
“I feel like people took the time to write, they’re pouring out their heart, they’re sharing verses. I feel like I could dedicate a day or two and answer as much as I can. There’s literally days that I feel so discouraged, that I just open my messages or open my letters and start reading them and it’s like water to a thirsty soul. Literally every letter I read, it gives me hope.”
At the Values Voter gala Saturday night, Meriam Ibrahim was honored for her courage in escaping Sudan after being sentenced to death for her Christian faith. During her special remarks, Ibrahim spoke directly to her "sister" Mrs. Abedini, encouraging her to keep the faith that her husband would escape religious persecution as well. Earlier in the evening, when it was her turn to speak, Abedini shared a video of her children pleading for their father’s return. Attendees were attempting to dry their eyes even before the video finished playing.
Maybe a plea straight from the Abedini children will convict the president to help bring their father home. Keep writing and keep pressuring the Obama administration to take action.
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, remarked at Saturday's gala that perhaps this time next year, they would be celebrating Saeed's return.