Persecution of the Saints: Saeed Abedini

By Kersley Fitzgerald

In July of 2012, Pastor Saeed Abedini left his wife and kids in their home in Idaho and traveled to his home country of Iran to visit his family and to continue supporting the construction of a state-run, secular orphanage in the city of Rasht on the Caspian Sea. While there, the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution (a branch of the Iranian military that enforces Islamic order) pulled him off a bus and arrested him.

Shortly after his arrest, he was taken to the dangerous Evin Prison. In January 2013, he was tried and sentenced to eight years in prison, although the charges were never made public. His family believes he was convicted for his work in Iran's home-church movement in the early 2000s. Saeed has been a mouse to the Iranian government's cat, alternating between enduring beatings by guards and prisoners and lying shackled and ignored in a Tehran hospital; meanwhile the government ignores calls for his release from the international community.

The story behind the story is a long one. Iran is located between the Arabian Sea and the Caspian Sea. Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan lie to the east, while Turkey, Iraq, and the Persian Gulf flank the west. The Sumerian, Akkadian, and Babylonian Empires encroached on its western border. Iranians are the Persians of the "Persians and the Medes" mentioned in the Bible (Esther 1:3; Daniel 5:28; 6:8; 8:20). In the 6th Century BC, Cyrus the Great founded the Achaemenid Empire, also known as the First Persian Empire. It was this Cyrus who allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and build the temple (Ezra 1:1-4). Darius I reinforced the order in Ezra 6. Next was Xerxes — the Ahasuerus of Esther. Shortly after came Artaxerxes who allowed Nehemiah to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the wall. Within 100 years, Persia fell to Alexander the Great. After his death came fifty years of political turmoil until the Seleucid administration took possession — the same Seleucids that the Maccabee brothers fought in 164 BC. As Seleucid control crumbled, the satraps gradually gained a measure of independence under the Parthians who ruled Persia and fought with Romans over the western provinces until AD 224. For about the next 400 years, the Sassanians worked to strengthen the area's infrastructure, wash the Greek influence out of society, and join with Zoroastrianism — the state religion. By AD 633, however, the king was young, the nation was weakened, and the Islamic Arabian army was at their border.

The Islamic army swept through Persia relatively easily, changing the political landscape quickly, but altering the religious landscape a little more slowly. Although the new rulers offered the people certain perks if they converted to Islam, they didn't force the issue, and Islam didn't become a dominant religion until the 800s. The Arab rulers also adopted several Persian customs and accepted their scientific advances. In the 16th century, Shi'a Islam took hold. Although Persia saw several centuries of incursion from neighboring nations and even more power shifts, Islam never lost its grip.

In the late 19th century the reigning Qajar shah (from Sahansah — "king of kings") attempted to strengthen Persian autonomy. His successor, however, was so corrupt both the people and the religious leaders demanded a constitution. Russia moved in, and World War I saw the end of the Qajar dynasty. Reza Khan, a military officer, took control of the government. He, too, wanted to modernize Iran, and sent hundreds of Iranians to Europe for training to do so. It was under his rule that the country shed the name "Persia," which only represented one ethnic group, and officially became Iran. Britain controlled Iran's oil, and the USSR was always an annoyance, so Reza looked to Germany for technical advice. Which got interesting when WWII hit. Reza declared Iran neutral, but Great Britain, the USSR, and America invaded to use its new railroad. After the war, Britain and America withdrew, but the USSR's reluctance to give up parts of Azerbaijan helped to start the Cold War.

With the power of Reza's dictatorship broken, the political system saw open elections and economic growth, but Reza's son, Mohammad Reza Shah, didn't make too many friends among the people or the religious leaders. He was an ally of the west against the Soviets and worked for literacy and women's suffrage, but also maintained authority over the army and used the secret police to control his enemies. His alliance with the US and disregard for democratic processes earned him the resentment of the people. In 1978, the exiled cleric Ayatollah Khomeini stepped in.

Mohammad Reza, the last shah of Iran, was overthrown in 1979 during the Islamic Revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini ("ayatollah" is the name given to high-ranking Shi'a clerics). Since then, Iran has been an Islamic Republic. There are several Islamic Republics across the world, and they mean different things in each country. In Iran, it means Shi'a Islam is the state religion. The country is governed by an elected president, parliament, and a religious counsel — the Assembly of Experts which is led by the Supreme Leader. The Supreme Leader also manages several secret units charged with maintaining the cultural (Islamic) character of Iran.

The "Supreme Leader" of Iran kind of combines the role of shah and head cleric into the political and religious leader of Iran. He oversees the military and has great influence over the civil and judicial sides of the government. The constitution written after the Islamic Revolution created and defined the Supreme Leader position, which is always held by an Islamic cleric. The Ayatollah Khomeini served as Supreme Leader from 1979 until his death in 1989; former president and founder of the Islamic Republican Party Seyed Ali Khamenei has held the position since. The term is eight years, and there is no limit as to how many terms a person may serve. As a cleric and a civil judge, the Supreme Leader is given judicial authority until the Twelfth Imam arrives with Isa (Jesus) to bring peace and justice to the world. Since the Supreme Leader is to prepare for the Twelfth Imam's international rule, he is not necessarily limited by the constitution of Iran. As such, his authority is vast — possibly unlimited within Iran, depending on the political climate.

When the US refused to hand over the exiled Mohammad Reza Shah, student supporters of the Islamic Revolution stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and held the staff hostage from November 4, 1979 to January 20, 1981. Saddam Hussein took advantage of the chaos and started the 7-year Iran-Iraq War. In 1988, after ticking off the US by threatening the oil supply, Khomeini finally accepted a truce. Next followed two somewhat moderate presidents who attempted to rebuild Iran with a focus on capitalism. Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, who served from 1989-1997, was a master politician who did what he could to repair relations with the West while condemning both the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent US invasion of Iraq. He also condemned the Iranian terrorist group the Mujahedeen and spoke for human rights, but refused to lift the fatwa (hit order) Khomeini had placed on Salman Rushdie. Next came Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005). He attempted to go further, advocating tolerance and reconciliation with the West and Asia. Unfortunately, his desires for reconciliation with conservatives in Iran were not strong enough to override their prejudices, and his reforms caused him to lose the support of the Supreme Leader.

It was during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami that Saeed Abedini converted from Islam to Christianity. As a convert, he was not allowed to worship with those who were born into Christian families. So he, with other converts, relied on a system of underground house churches that pock Iran. He met and married his American-Iranian wife, Naghmeh, in 2002, and the two became leaders in the house church movement, traveling to 30 cities and setting up 100 churches. Khatami and the Supreme Leader were distracted with economic reform, international reconciliation, and each other, and largely ignored the house churches and their leaders.

But neither Rafsanjani nor Khatami were completely successful in their desires for reform. The ultra-conservative Iranian Revolutionary Guards continued to grow in power. Improvements didn't reach the rural areas that needed them most. In 2005 Khatami reached his maximum two terms, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president or Iran.

Ahmadinejad reversed his predecessors' social course. He had always been politically conservative, and had even been removed as provincial governor by Khatami. His first term was characterized by criticism from the public for his economic reforms and human rights violations. His second was known for criticism from the Supreme Leader for corruption allegations.

When Ahmadinejad was elected president, Saeed and Naghmeh Abedini knew it was time to leave. They fled to America where they raised their two children. Saeed made several trips back to Iran to visit family and work on social projects, such as the orphanage in Rasht. In 2008, he became an ordained minister in the US; in 2009, he was detained in Iran and only released after he swore to stop his work with the house church network. A year later, Saeed became a US citizen.

Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad was building on his reputation for human rights violations. Torture and long stints in solitary were becoming normal at the Evin Prison, which had never been a pleasant place. It is home to many people (local and foreign) accused of espionage, as well as foreign journalists, lost hikers, and several Christian converts. Ahmadinejad claimed that the abuse, torture, and rapes of women prisoners characteristic of Evin are the work of "enemy agents." No one believed him, wondering instead who he was trying to placate.

Saeed Abedini was arrested during a trip to Iran in July of 2012. He was sent to Evin Prison that September, and in January 2013, sentenced to eight years in prison. That August, Ahmadinejad lost the presidential election to Hassan Rouhani.

Before the election, Rouhani had served in the Assembly of Experts — the elected government council made of Islamic clerics who appoint the Supreme Leader. He promised to focus on civil rights and the economy, and is considered politically moderate. Amid reforms giving women more authority in government and the release of eleven political prisoners come accusations that executions have increased since he took office. He rejected a personal meeting with Obama, but has met with Russian President Putin.

In September 2013, during a phone call between Presidents Obama and Rouhani, Obama requested information about Saeed and two other Americans believed to be held in Iran. In the same month, during a chance encounter in New York City, Naghmeh was able to deliver a personal letter to Rouhani requesting Saeed's release.

In March, Saeed was transferred to a hospital due to internal bleeding caused by beatings. Recently it's been reported that Saeed was beaten again and transferred to Rajai Shahr Prison.

This spring, Saeed was able to pass on a letter to family members who were allowed to visit him in the hospital. Following is a piece of that letter:
Some times [sic] we want to experience the Glory and resurrection with Jesus without experiencing death with Him. We do not realize that unless we pass through the path of death with Christ, we are not able to experience resurrection with Christ.
We want to have a good and successful marriage, career, education and family life (which is also God's desire and plan for our life). But we forget that in order to experience the Resurrection and Glory of Christ we first have to experience death with Christ and to die to ourselves and selfish desires.

Jesus said to His Disciples: "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. (Matthew 16:24)...

A Glorious life with Christ starts only after a painful death (to self) with Christ.
We will start with Christ.
Pastor Saeed Abedini
Prisoner in the Darkness in Iran, but free for the Kingdom and Light

Published 5-20-14