One of the more dramatic backstories being played out this weekend as Pope Francis continues his historic visit to the United States is whether he will try to win the release of an American pastor jailed for his faith in Iran.
Pastor Saeed Abedini will mark his three-year anniversary in an Iranian prison on Saturday, Sept. 26, enduring beatings, lack of medical attention and a fresh report of torture this week.
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But the pope's presence in America this weekend, at the same time that Iran's president arrived in New York for a United Nations summit, has given Saeed's family reason to hope that their loved one might be released. The pope is scheduled to fly back to Rome Sunday evening.
For their part, the Iranians have not seemed open to the idea of releasing Saeed. Earlier this week, they delivered a new round of heartbreaking news to Saeed's wife, who lives in Boise, Idaho, with their two young children.
Iran has reportedly taken steps to extend Saeed's eight-year prison sentence, threatening to file new charges, while torturing the 35-year-old pastor with an electronic stun gun.
On Tuesday, Iranian prison officials interrogated Saeed and repeatedly attacked him with a Taser, according to reports by the International Christian Concern and the American Center for Law and Justice.
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In the past, Saeed has spent weeks in solitary confinement, endured beatings that turned his face "unrecognizable," and been denied critical medical treatment.
Saeed is one of four Americans being held hostage in Iran and one of at least 90 Christians imprisoned solely for their faith.
The Obama administration chose not to demand the Americans' release as a condition of the historic international agreement signed last month that lifts most sanctions against Iran in return for certain concessions on its nuclear program.
Christianity growing in Iran
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In fact, Saeed Abedini has been a central figure in leading that revival.
He was born in Iran in 1980 and raised a Shia Muslim.
In his teens, Saeed was recruited by a jihadist group to become a suicide bomber and martyr for the cause of Islam.
But he grew disillusioned with his Islamic faith. He converted to Christianity in 2000 when he was 20 years old, traveled to America where he met his wife and obtained dual citizenship.
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The family was committed to sharing the gospel with other Iranians, discipling them and setting up a network of underground churches throughout Iran. Fox News has reported that "his home church movement had about 100 churches in 30 Iranian cities with more than 2,000 members."
"Several times, Saeed traveled to Iran to encourage the underground church and care for the poor and needy. But in 2012, he was arrested by the Iranian government, beaten, and sentenced to death under Sharia law for converting to Christianity — thus becoming an apostate, in the eyes of Islam," reported Christian author Joel Rosenberg in his Sept. 24 blog post.
"It [the underground church movement] was just growing so fast," Nagmeh told Fox News. "They [Iran’s government] see the underground churches as a threat, and they see Christianity as a tool from the West to undermine them. They think if the country becomes more Christian, they are no longer under Islamic authority. That's why it's a threat."
Rosenberg reports that Saeed has been moved to a different prison and several times to different cells within the prison because he continues to win his fellow inmates to Christ.
New website to sign up prayer warriors
Naghmeh has started a website where people around the world can register to pray for her husband and all those imprisoned and facing martyrdom for their faith in Christ.
The website is at SaeedVigil.com, where Naghmeh is asking fellow Christians for two days of prayer and fasting starting Sept. 26, the day her husband was captured in 2012 during a missions trip in Iran. Churches around the world will pray for him Sunday.
More than 1 million Americans have already signed a petition calling for the pastor's release.
Watch video below of Naghmeh Saeed telling of how her husband was captured:
During a visit Wednesday with a family member still in Iran, Saeed was able to relay some of the details of what he suffered the day before. He spoke of intelligence officers repeatedly turning on him with a Taser stun gun. They also threatened to add new criminal charges, accusing him of making connections with anti-government groups and making political statements and actions against the government of Iran.
"Pastor Saeed denied all of these allegations, and once again asserted that he is apolitical and that he has never threatened the security of, made any statements against, or taken any action against the government of Iran," according to a statement from the American Center for Law and Justice, which represents the Abedini family.
This development comes as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani prepares to address the United Nations General Assembly Monday in New York. It also coincides with new efforts by the ACLJ in the international arena as a growing number of global leaders urge Iran to release Saeed.
Reports of torture and neglect
Naghmeh shared in an interview with CBN News how her family's nightmare began in 2012 when the Iranian Revolutionary Guards showed up at the door of Saeed's mother's house, where he was staying in Iran during a mission trip.
Saeed wrote in a letter two years ago that he could not even recognize himself after all the beatings and torture he has endured: "My hair was shaven, under my eyes were swollen three times what they should have been, my face was swollen, and my beard had grown," he wrote.
After multiple beatings and interrogations at the hands of the Islamic regime, Saeed wrote that the nurse who was supposed to treat injured inmates told him "in our religion we are not supposed to touch you, you are unclean. ... Christians are unclean!" He explained. "They would not give me the pain medication that they would give other prisoners because I was unclean."
Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post's Tehran bureau chief, and former Marine Amir Hekmati are also jailed in Iran on espionage charges that Washington insists are unwarranted. U.S. officials also are unsure of the fate of Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who disappeared in 2007 while participating in what was later reported to have been a rogue CIA mission.
Hopes ride on papal visit
Pope Francis' visit to America at the same time that top Iranian officials are attending a United Nations summit has raised hopes that Saeed and the other Americans might be freed.
"It's been always my hope that the pope would get involved," Naghmeh told the Washington Examiner. "He has a powerful voice to the Iranian government."
"We know that the pope's words carry great weight," added Jay Sekulow, ACLJ's chief counsel, in an op-ed for Fox News. "His message of the need to protect religious freedom – and safeguarding the rights of Christians worldwide – is certain to resonate here in this country and we hope in Tehran, as well."
Iranian President Rouhani will speak Monday at the U.N. General Assembly, and he's also expected to hold talks with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and heads of state.
"This is the perfect time for Iran to act – to release Pastor Saeed and other Americans held captive," Sekulow wrote. "Iran should act now because the world is watching."
As Naghmeh prepares to join millions in prayer on Saturday, she continues to work tirelessly to secure his freedom.
In the run-up to Rouhani's appearance at the U.N., Naghmeh met with U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power, who pledged to continue to raise Saeed’s case with Iran and other countries at the U.N.
Naghmeh met with the U.N. General Assembly, getting 67 members to sign a letter calling for her husband's release.
"When will this nightmare end? Saeed is not a criminal," Naghmeh told the ACLJ.
"Hearing that yet again the hardliners in Iran are trying to fabricate evidence against my husband and that he was abused and Tasered is almost too much to bear," she said.
Despite the persecution, Naghmeh told CBN News her husband's faith remains strong.
Naghmeh Abedini shares more about the two-day vigil in the video below:
This summer the couple's 11th wedding anniversary came and went as they remained separated.
"I wanted to give Saeed a gift and the best gift I thought to give him is to do a prayer vigil for him, and to remember him, as the Bible says in Hebrews 13:3 to remember those in prison as though you are in prison with them," Naghmeh said. "This year, I started working on the prayer vigil and the Lord gave me Hebrews 12, and I felt the Lord saying that 'as people gathered to pray for Saeed and the persecuted church, I will do a work in their lives.' It didn't make sense to me, but Hebrews 12 says we have a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us, and the Lord showed me as we remember Saeed and those who are standing for their faith it will affect our run of the race. Let us run the race with strength and endurance and not letting sins to easily entangle us and ensnare us.
"And as we remember those who are being martyred in prison for their faith in Jesus, we will re-evaluate our own walk with Christ and say, you know what, I'm just going to get rid of these things that are in my way and taking my focus off of Jesus, these arguments, these divisions, where are they coming from? I'm going to take my walk seriously, and that's my whole prayer for the prayer vigil as we come together and pray we will all see revival in our own life. It's on Sept. 26, which was the day Saeed was taken into prison. I'm asking everyone to pray and seek God."
Rouhani's address the U.N. General Assembly Monday will mark his first trip to the U.S. since Iran signed the nuclear deal.
While he has made good on his promises to his people regarding the nuclear negotiations, he has been an "abject failure in delivering on his pledges to defend basic civil rights and liberties in Iran," said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. "Rouhani hides behind an 'independent' Judiciary, but he is still head of state. It is indefensible that Rouhani has been silent and inconsequential on basic human rights."
As of the beginning of 2015, Saeed was one of more than 90 Christians who were either in prison or awaiting trial for charges related to their faith, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
These latest developments have added to the hardships his family has endured over the past three years.
"It was a heartbreaking visit," Naghmeh Abedini told ICC. "The attacks are great, but God's grace is carrying Saeed."
Naghmeh Abedini had this to say Thursday about her husband's continued incarceration:
"When will this nightmare end? Saeed is not a criminal. Being a Christian and motivated by Christian values to help the poorest and most needy children in Iran should be seen as good for the Iranian society. Hearing that yet again the hardliners in Iran are trying to fabricate evidence against my husband and that he was abused and tasered is almost too much to bear.
"It is time for governments all over the world shift their focus to the injustices of the Iranian Government and call on the Government of Iran to free my husband. It is time for businesses seeking to do business in Iran to look beyond their bottom dollar and see the instability of a government known to imprison innocent men and women who have exercised their fundamental freedoms. Whether we operate in the field of business, government, or simply are members of human society, we must expect and demand more of our leaders.
"I pray that as President Rouhani plans his travel to the United States, he will hear relentless voices crying out for Saeed's freedom."