Rep. Robert Pittenger meets with freed Idaho pastor, finds him in ‘good spirits’

Pastor Saeed Abedini met with U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger of North Carolina at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany on Jan. 19, 2016.
Pastor Saeed Abedini met with U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger of North Carolina at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany on Jan. 19, 2016. Courtesy of Congressman Robert Pittenger

The Idaho pastor who was released last weekend after spending three and half years in an Iranian prison is in good spirits, and both well aware of and ready for the long trek back to full health, according to a U.S. congressman who met with him Tuesday.

U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger, a North Carolina Republican who spent years working to get Iran to release Saeed Abedini, of Boise, had never previously met the subject of his efforts. He said he was encouraged by the spark and attitude Abedini displayed during their 90-minute talk.

“He’s really doing well,” Pittenger said. “He’s in great spirits, and it was wonderful to see.”

He looked great. Maybe the Iranians wanted to make sure he was fit and ready to leave.

Rep. Robert Pittenger

Pittenger was photographed at the hospital with Abedini, who was wearing a black Wounded Warrior Project sweatshirt and smiling.

Pittenger, an evangelical Christian, declined to provide many details of their conversation. He said the two did pray together, though for what would remain confidential.

“Prayers are private,” he said.

Beyond that, he said the conversation was general.

“We didn’t get into his time in the prison so much,” he said. “All I know is that they pretty much left him alone, a lot. I do know he looked great. Maybe the Iranians wanted to make sure he was fit and ready to leave.”

Pittenger said the primary takeaway was that after a long, grueling ordeal, Abedini was doing quite well.

One still-unanswered question is when Abedini will reunite with his wife, Naghmeh, and their two children, Rebekka, 9, and Jacob, 7. Pittenger had said Monday that he expected Naghmeh Abedini to fly to Germany to meet with her husband.

But those plans apparently changed, with Naghmeh Abedini telling the Idaho Statesman that she would meet her husband at an undisclosed location on the East Coast of the United States and they would not return to Boise for an extended period.

“The kids and I will meet him there to take time to heal and readjust and work on our marriage,” she said.

Naghmeh Abedini said she had spoken with her husband by phone since his release. She did not reveal the details of those conversations.

Abedini’s re-entry into society after his long imprisonment in Iran has stood in contrast to those of two other Americans who were released Saturday. Jason Rezaian, a Washington Post reporter, arrived in Germany with his wife and mother and was greeted by a brother and his editors, who shared photos of the meeting on Facebook.

Former Marine Amir Hekmati met with his hometown congressman, Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., and then answered questions from reporters in a brief appearance outside the medical center at Landstuhl on Tuesday.

Being free after more than four years in captivity was “like being born again, and I just really feel proud to be an American,” Hekmati said. At one point, he was sentenced to death for espionage, though eventually that was commuted to 10 years in prison

Hekmati said his military training had help him survive what he called “inhumane conditions.”

“I didn't want to let my fellow Marines down, and the reputation of the Marine Corps, so I tried my best to keep my head up and withstand all the pressure that was put on me,” he said.

Abedini was arrested in September 2012 and sentenced to eight years in prison on charges of evangelizing, an activity that an Iranian judge ruled was “threatening the national security of Iran.” There were reports that he was beaten severely during his imprisonment and suffered internal bleeding, requiring surgery. While Christianity is tolerated in Iran, the government takes a harsh view of Muslims who convert, as Abedini did.

Abedini’s case is complicated by a public falling-out with his wife, who last November withdrew from public advocacy for his release, telling supporters in emails that she had been subjected to “physical, emotional, psychological and sexual abuse” throughout her marriage and that he was addicted to pornography.

She later expressed regret for having sent the emails, and said she was praying for her husband’s release.

“Yesterday, the plan was that his wife was going to come over to meet him here,” Pittenger said. “But she’s not coming now.”

Pittenger said he expected Abedini to leave for the United States “pretty soon.”

“We discussed his personal issues, but personal issues are personal issues,” Pittenger said. “It was encouraging that he acknowledged that he knows he has a great deal to work on, and understands that work will take a long time. He’s doing really well.”

Katy Moeller of the Idaho Statesman contributed to this report from Boise.

Matthew Schofield: @mattschodcnews