North Carolina congressman flies to Germany to greet pastor freed by Iran

WASHINGTON North Carolina Rep. Robert Pittenger, who worked for 2 1/2 years to win an Idaho minister’s release from an Iranian prison, flew to Germany Sunday as part of the official U.S. delegation greeting Pastor Saeed Abedini and two other Americans freed as part of a broad prisoner swap.

President Barack Obama invited Pittenger to participate in the welcoming contingent traveling to the U.S. Army’s Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, where doctors were examining three of five Americans released over the weekend -- Abedini, Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian and former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati.

The delegation was expected to meet with the freed prisoners as early as Monday, Pittenger’s office said. Pittenger made repeated appeals to the Obama administration and even Pope Francis since taking interest in Abedini’s plight in 2013.

“Pastor Abedini’s children haven’t seen their daddy in over three years,” Pittenger said Sunday. “Can you even begin to imagine that sorrow, and now, even better, the incredible joy as they get their first hug from daddy. We are grateful that Pastor Abedini, Mr. Rezaian, and Mr. Hekmati are free, and I am honored to participate in this joyous delegation.”

Abedini, who converted from Islam to Christianity, had traveled to Iran in 2012 on a mission to build an orphanage. But he was detained in July 2012 on charges of evangelizing and sentenced to eight years in prison. The judge said Abedini’s activities were “threatening the national security of Iran.”

The United Nations Human Rights Council declared in August 2013 that Abedini’s imprisonment was “arbitrary” and violated the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, of which Iran is a signatory.

Pittenger got involved a month later as evangelicals across the country, including two in North Carolina, sought to galvanize support for Abedini’s release. The Republican congressman was approached by Pastor David Chadwick of the Forest Hill Church in Charlotte and by the Rev. Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham.

Pittenger organized at least three bipartisan letters signed by dozens of members of Congress to Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry. During Pope Francis’ recent speech to a joint session of Congress, Pittenger escorted Abedini’s wife, Naghmeh Abedini, to the House chamber as his guest, but efforts to arrange a meeting with a senior Vatican official were unsuccessful.

Pittenger also introduced a bipartisan House resolution charging that Saeed Abedini had been “arbitrarily detained, tortured and held in solitary confinement because he is a Christian.”

Abedini’s two children back home in Idaho, it said, “are growing up without their daddy.”

After Abedini’s release, coinciding with the lifting of global sanctions against Iran, Pittenger said: “We are all deeply grateful and thrilled at the release of Pastor Abedini. Certainly, this has been a long, difficult road for Naghmeh, her children, and Saeed. Let’s celebrate and then remember to keep praying as Pastor Abedini recovers from the injuries he suffered in prison and transitions back to family life.”

Rejoining his family may present challenges. In two emails made public in November, Naghmeh Abedini publicly accused her husband of struggling with “demons” that led to sexual abuse involving pornography, though she later expressed regrets for doing so.

In Boise, Pastor Bob Caldwell of Calvary Chapel, Abedini’s congregation, was met with a standing ovation Saturday night when he announced in church that Saeed Abedini had been released.

Naghmeh Abedini said she woke her children up first thing Saturday to tell them the news.

“The children are excited. They’re beside themselves,” she said. “They keep asking me, ‘When are we going to see him?’”

Caldwell said the Calvary Chapel congregation wants to help Naghmeh and Saeed Abedini “in healing their own relationship.”

“They have things they got to work out, but that’s what a church is,” he said. “We’re all working stuff out. We’re to be healers, not destroyers.”

Some Republicans in Congress were critical of the prisoner exchange, saying that Obama had shown weakness by granting clemency to seven Iranians charged with violating U.S. trade sanctions against Iran and dismissing charges against 14 other Iranians, all outside the United States, whose pursuit was unlikely to result in their extradition.

Jamie Bowers, a spokesman for Pittenger, said the congressman “is extremely grateful that the American hostages have been freed. He wouldn’t trade that for anything. But he feels that if President Obama had played his cards right, this could have happened two years ago.”

Pittenger said: “I wish we could trade our negotiators for theirs, because they obviously have the upper hand.”

Erin Fenner of the Idaho Statesman contributed to this report.

Greg Gordon: 202-383-0005, @greggordon2