- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 17, 2016

After her husband had been held for more than three years in Iran and beaten for refusing to recant his Christian faith, Naghmeh Abedini was finally able to tell her children that their father was headed home over the weekend.

“They were just excited. They couldn’t believe it,” she said after news broke that her husband, Idaho pastor Saeed Abedini, was on a flight back to the U.S. from Tehran.

Mr. Abedini, 35, is one of five Americans released by Iran as part of a prisoner swap between the two countries. He had been detained for compromising national security, presumably because of Christian proselytizing, in September 2012. He was sentenced in 2013 to eight years in prison.

The prisoner exchange was a key piece of a broader deal that also saw the Obama administration over the weekend lift $100 billion of economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for Tehran curbing its nuclear program.

President Obama praised the release of Mr. Abedini and other Americans and said it represented the culmination of years of behind-the-scenes diplomacy on the part of the U.S.

“Several Americans unjustly detained by Iran are finally coming home. In some cases these Americans faced years of continued detention. And I’ve met with some of their families. I’ve seen their anguish, how they ache for their sons and husbands. I gave these families my word — I made a vow — that we would do everything in our power to win the release of their loved ones. And we have been tireless,” the president said Sunday, adding that the families “finally got the news that they were waiting for.”

Other prominent U.S. political figures also celebrated the news.

“Praise God the prisoners are coming home, the Americans are coming home,” Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a Republican presidential candidate, said during an interview on “Fox News Sunday.”

Iran also released Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, who had been held more than 543 days on espionage and related charges.

“We are relieved that this 545-day nightmare for Jason and his family is finally over,” Washington Post publisher Frederick J. Ryan said in a statement.

Former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati also was freed.

“It is hard to put into words what our family feels right now,” Mr. Hekmati’s family said in a statement.

Two other Americans, Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari and Matthew Trevithick, also are being returned home.

“Their cases were largely unknown to the world. But when Americans are freed and reunited with their families, that’s something that we can all celebrate,” Mr. Obama said.

But another American, Robert Levinson, still is believed to be in Iran. Mr. Levinson — a retired FBI agent and CIA contractor — was kidnapped in 2007 while on Iran’s Kish Island. The Iranian government has denied having anything to do with his disappearance, but his whereabouts remain a sticking point between the U.S. and Iran.

“We still don’t see Bob Levinson coming home, so we have unfinished questions and business still,” former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a Democratic presidential candidate, said on ABC’s “This Week.”

As for Mr. Abedini, his release was cause for celebration at a weekend event honoring religious liberty.

“Thank God! We celebrate with Naghmeh Abedini on the release of her husband, Pastor Saeed Abedini,” said Tony Perkins, president of Family Research Council, who was leading a four-hour event in honor of the Jan. 16 National Religious Freedom Day.

Mr. Abedini was born and raised a Muslim in Iran but converted to Christianity in 2000.

The pastor had been “viciously beaten” many times for not recanting Christianity, according to a June article in The Christian Post.

At a September prayer vigil, Mrs. Abedini, who is also a U.S. citizen, read from a letter in which the imprisoned pastor reassured his 8-year-old daughter that “Lord Jesus Christ is in control,” and expressed his wish that she “learn important lessons during these trying times,” particularly that “everything that is happening in it is for his good purpose,” the Catholic News Agency said.

Separately, in December, Iran released Pastor Farshid Fatih from prison, according to International Christian Concern (ICC).

He was then reunited with his parents, who are part of Voices of Christians in Iran.

The charges against Mr. Fatih were similar to what many Christian converts in Iran face if they choose to meet together with others who share their beliefs, the ICC said.

He had been sentenced to six years in prison for “action against the security of the state, contact with foreign organizations, and religious propaganda.” These charges are used to give a criminal element to what is technically legal according to Iran law, but in practice is the cause for dozens of arrests, the ICC said.

More than 90 Christians are still believed to be imprisoned in Iran, according to a variety of advocacy groups who work in support of Iranian Christians, World Watch Monitor reported.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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