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An American in custody in Iran for alleged crimes related to his Christian faith was pulled from his hospital bed, beaten and returned to the infamous Rajai Shahr prison, according to his family.

Saeed Abedini, imprisoned since the end of 2012, had been transferred to a private hospital in March due to chronic stomach pain caused by repeated beatings. He had been promised tests and surgery, but his family said he instead was denied treatment, shackled and beaten by guards.

The American Center for Law and Justice said the reason for moving Abedini back to prison is unclear.

In a statement, Abedini’s wife, Nagmeh, said she is heartbroken.

“This is an extremely disappointing development – one that breaks my heart. Our family is deeply saddened and we continue to pray for Saeed – for his safety and his release. We are very grateful that so many people around the world continue to pray for Saeed,” she said.

ACLJ Executive Director Jordan Sekulow said the development was “unexpected and occurred without warning.”

Sekulow noted Saeed, who turned 34 on May 7, is now approaching two years in captivity in Iran.

“He is a U.S. citizen, and it is also clear that he is being punished because of his Christian faith. This disturbing development along with the new beatings raise serious new concerns about his health – especially now since he’s been returned to a prison cell,” Sekulow said.

A State Department official speaking to WND on condition of anonymity said the department is aware of the development.

“We remain concerned about Mr. Abedini’s health and welfare, especially given reports of mistreatment during his transfer back to Rajai Shahr prison,” the official said.

“We repeat our request for Iran to permit Mr. Abedini to receive any necessary medical treatment and to grant Swiss officials, who serve as our protecting power, consular access to determine his well-being.”

The official said the State Department remains in touch with Abedini’s family.

“We call on Iran to release Mr. Abedini so that he may be reunited with his family.”

WND reported in April that some analysts believed moving Abedini to a hospital could have signaled that a diplomatic arrangement was under way.

However, WND had reported in December that a growing number of religious liberty experts said the Obama administration’s low view of religious liberty explains the lack of action on Abedini’s behalf.

Nagmeh Abedini said while she’s not sure of the Obama administration’s intent, it’s clear that religious liberty is not a priority.

“The problem I have with the administration is that they are not putting religious liberty and fundamental human rights issues as [a] priority and [are] therefore sending a dangerous message to Iran and the Middle East on where they stand regarding human rights issues. Their silence is speaking volumes,” she said.

‘Undermining national security’

Abedini was sentenced in January 2013 to eight years in prison for spreading Christianity in Iran. He was convicted of attempting to undermine the government and endangering national security by persuading youth to leave Islam.

A former Muslim, he converted to Christianity in 2000, an act regarded as “apostasy” under Islamic law and punishable by death.

In the early 2000s, he helped establish about 100 house churches in 30 Iranian cities with more than 2,000 members. When Mahmoud Ahmedinejad was elected president in 2005, however, Iranian authorities cracked down on the movement, and the Abedinis moved to the U.S., where he became a citizen.

His wife, Naghmeh, whom he married in 2002, grew up in Boise, Idaho, where the family has been living. The Abedinis have two children.

When he was arrested in 2012, he was on his ninth trip to Iran since 2009, working with an orphanage project in the city of Rasht.

Abedini’s imprisonment was the focus of a hearing of the House Joint Subcommittee on the Middle East and Human Rights in December.

Chairman Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., said Abedini had been told he could re-enter Iran to carry on his relief work.

“The Iranian government offered him safe entry. He accepted the Iranian government’s offer for safe passage, but the Iranian government hasn’t kept its promise,” Smith said.

Smith said the Iranians know they have an important prisoner who could serve as a bargaining chip in U.S. negotiations regarding Iran’s nuclear program. The congressman noted the fact that authorities previously moved Abedini to a more dangerous prison, which he described as “an absolute hell-hole in Iran.”

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