Under a dark and cloudy sky, Naghmeh Abedini, of Meridian, Idaho, stood before hundreds of people gathered in a park near the White House. She held in her hand a birthday letter to her daughter.
With tears in her eyes, Abedini read the letter, which was from her husband, Saeed Abedini, an American citizen and pastor who’s imprisoned in Iran. It was addressed to the couple’s 8-year-old, Rebekkah.
“Let Daddy hear you sing a loud Hallelujah that I can hear all the way here in the prison,” she said, her voice shaking.
Supporters had gathered near the White House for a prayer vigil Thursday evening. They called for the release of Saeed Abedini, who they said was unjustly imprisoned for his faith and mission work.
It was the first of hundreds of vigils planned around the world Friday, the two-year anniversary of Abedini’s imprisonment since he was detained by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and sentenced to eight years for allegedly proselytizing his Christian faith, a crime in Muslim-ruled Iran.
“Now that we mark these two years, it’s time for Saeed to be home,” said Jordan Sekulow, the executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice, a Washington-based conservative Christian law firm that presses for Abedini’s release.
“It’s time for our governments and governments around the world to work together to get Saeed home,” he said.
How actively the Obama administration has been pressuring Iran to release Abedini is uncertain. The countries don’t have diplomatic relations and have been bitter rivals for a generation. Secretary of State John Kerry met with his Iranian counterpart this week during the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York, but it wasn’t known whether he’d raised the issue of Abedini.
In an emailed statement Friday, Deputy State Department Spokeswoman Marie Harf said the department remained concerned about Abedini’s health and welfare. “We continue to pursue all available options to secure the safe return of Mr. Abedini, as well as the other detained or missing U.S. citizens in Iran,” she said.
Patrick Clawson, the director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the Obama administration had kept Abedini’s case – as well as other issues, such as Iran’s support for Syrian President Bashar Assad – separate from the ongoing negotiations on Tehran’s nuclear program, the subject of Kerry’s meeting in New York.
“The administration is just not going to make a nuclear deal, in any way, hostage or contingent on progress on any of these cases,” said Clawson, who’s written several books on Iran.
That, Clawson said, leaves Abedini supporters with only one option: organizing public demonstrations against Iran’s treatment of religious minorities.
“The broader the coalition one can mobilize of people saying, ‘This is an embarrassment to Iran,’ the more likely you’re going to get (Abedini) released,” he said.
The crowd outside the White House on Thursday night and the demonstrations elsewhere Friday were intended to do just that. In addition to Naghmeh Abedini and the couple’s children, Rebekkah and Jacob, hundreds rallied across from the White House, including the Rev. Franklin Graham, of Boone, N.C., son of the legendary evangelist Billy Graham and the head of Samaritan’s Purse, one of the largest Christian aid groups in the world.
“I want us to pray that God would intervene and he would bring this faithful servant, who has been tortured and beaten for his faith, that God would bring him home,” Graham told the crowd.
“He’s being tortured and abused, and so it is hard for me knowing that and watching my kids suffer,” Naghmeh Abedini said.
Saeed Abedini was visiting his native Iran in 2012 when he was accused of flouting laws against Christian activities and was charged with subversion. He was convicted and sentenced in January 2013. The court found him guilty of undermining the Iranian state by creating an underground network of churches.
After praying in Lafayette park, the Abedini family, Graham, and American Center for Law and Justice officials led the crowd on a prayer walk, snaking its way to the gates of the White House.
“If Saeed was a priority, he would be home right now,” Naghmeh Abedini said.
Hundreds of vigils were scheduled Friday around the United States and dozens of other countries. Twenty-four were scheduled in churches and in front of city halls in Idaho alone, according to the website of Save Saeed, an American Center for Law and Justice project.
Anna Todaro, 49, a real estate appraiser from Fredericksburg, Va., was among those gathered at the White House. It was the second year in a row she’d participated in an Abedini march. She said this year’s event was much larger and passionate.
“Our hearts should be broken” for all Christians who are persecuted as minorities in other countries, she said.
Edgar Acajabon, 42, of Washington, said he didn’t expect the prayer vigil to lead to a quick release for Abedini. “It’s going to be hard to persuade (the Iranians) to think otherwise,” he said.
Sekulow, of the American Center for Law and Justice, said other persecuted Christians often didn’t have the opportunity to campaign for tolerance of religious minorities in hostile countries.
“Most people who are facing this persecution don’t have a family,” Sekulow said. They “don’t have a wife in the United States who is an American who can speak freely and openly without fear of their own life.”
Naghmeh Abedini said she was proud of her husband for staying steadfast in his beliefs.
“I know he’s there for standing up for his faith,” she said. “He didn’t deny Christ under the worst possible conditions.”
She said she got strength and encouragement from public displays of support for the family through prayers and letters.
“People are remembering us,” she said. “It means so much to our family to know it’s not just a news story that’s forgotten.”