WEISS: U.S. pastor faces trial in Iran for Christian faith

State Department looks the other way

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As this is being written, Saeed Abedini, an American citizen and evangelical pastor, sits in an Iranian jail awaiting his trial. The expected ruling is death, for charges which are presumed to be related to his Christian faith. The State Department, which works closely with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to stamp out “intolerance” and “Islamophobia” against Muslims in America, has been virtually silent about Mr. Abedini’s predicament in Iran, one of the member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

Thirty-two-year-old Saeed Abedini was raised in Iran as a Muslim. At age 20 he converted to Christianity and subsequently became an evangelical pastor. He married a U.S. citizen, and is now a U.S. citizen himself. He and his wife have two children, ages 4 and 6.

Mr. Abedini still has family that remains in Iran, and for years he has been travelling to visit them. Initially, he also worked to set up an underground church, an act which is illegal in Iran.

In 2009, he was caught and arrested. He was let out on bail conditioned upon his agreement to stop running the underground church and to refrain from proselytizing his Christian faith. In return, the Iranian government agreed not to put him in prison. Both parties kept their agreement for years. Mr. Abedini visited Iran eight times since his 2009 arrest. During his visits, he saw his family members and initiated plans to start an orphanage.

In the summer of 2012, the Iranian government went back on its promise. During one of Mr. Abedini’s visits to Iran, a Revolutionary Guard interrogated him, and he was placed under house arrest. Disregarding Mr. Abedini’s U.S. citizenship, the Iranian government forced him to remain at his parents’ house.

Then, in September 2012, Mr. Abedini was sent to Evin prison in Tehran, notorious for being especially brutal and abusive. He was never informed of the charges. Moreover, the government confiscated his bank account, which contained approximately $105,000 that had been donated to him to help start the orphanage.

In a letter sent to his family, Mr. Abedini stated that he had endured beatings during interrogations that occurred regularly, and that the Iranian guards have given him death threats, saying that he “will hang” for his “faith in Jesus.”

Throughout all of this, the State Department remained silent, despite the fact that it is mandated to protect U.S. citizens who travel abroad.

Finally last week, for the first time, Mr. Abedini’s lawyer was permitted to see his file. It was only then, with less than one week’s notice, that he discovered the date of Mr. Abedini’s trial. His lawyer reports that the charges are indecipherable, except for one dating back to the year 2000, the same year that Mr. Abedini converted to Christianity and became an apostate.

The charge issued is for “actions [taken] against the national security of Iran.” This is typical of the type of charge hurled against religious minorities that are to be persecuted. It is clear that the charges against Mr. Abedini pertain to his Christian conversion and prior evangelizing.

The trial date is set for Jan. 21, 2013. Mr. Abedini’s case is assigned to Judge Pir-Abassi, who heads the 26th Branch of the Revolutionary Court. The judge is nicknamed the “hanging judge,” and he has a reputation for doling out especially harsh sentences. He has been known to issue death sentences to mere protesters and political dissidents. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has cited Pir-Abassi as one of three judges “responsible for particularly severe violations of religious freedom.”

The judge is so extreme that most attorneys refuse to handle cases that are calendared for his courtroom. In 2011, the European Union named Judge Pir-Abassi as an individual subject to sanctions for his human rights abuses. It has issued a ban disallowing him to enter the European Union.

In Iran, as in all Muslim countries, conversion out of the Islamic faith (apostasy) constitutes a capital offense. According to Faraz Sanei of Human Rights Watch, the Iranian regime believes that evangelicals are trying to convert Muslims to Christianity and considers them a particular threat. He reported that Iran has increased its targeting of Christian converts starting in 2005 when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president. The targeting escalated even further after the 2009 protests.

Alabama Rep. Robert Aderholt and Idaho Sen. Jim Risch have issued a letter along with numerous other congressional signatories, calling for Pastor Saeed’s release. There are also some online petitions circulating toward that same goal.

Finally last week, in a feeble, almost meaningless statement, Ms. Victoria Nuland of the State Department proclaimed that the Department has a “serious concern” about Mr. Abedini’s detainment. After learning that he has been denied access to his lawyer since his arrest, she asked Iranian officials to “respect Iran’s own laws and provide Mr. Abedini with access to a lawyer.”

The Obama administration bends over backwards to ensure that that it doesn’t use any language that might offend American Muslims, even if accurate. Yet it has turned a blind eye to the real persecution of religious minorities implemented by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation countries, such as the abuse of Mr. Abedini, despite his being an American citizen.

Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013, is John Kerry’s confirmation hearing for the position of secretary of state. If Mr. Abedini is lucky enough not to be executed in the interim, Thursday’s hearing would provide the perfect opportunity for senators to place pressure on Mr. Kerry to demand Mr. Abedini’s unconditional release.

Deborah Weiss is a lawyer and co-author of the book, “Saudi Arabia and the Global Islamic Terrorist Network” (Palgrave MacMillan, 2011).

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