(Photo: American Center for Law and Justice)
A Christian group is asking believers across the nation to set an empty place setting for Pastor Saeed Abedini, a U.S. immigrant being held in an Iranian prison for his faith, at Christmas dinner to symbolically remember and pray for thousands of Christians in jails around the world.
The request to remember and pray for Christians persecuted for their faith is being made by two Washington, D.C.-based groups, Christian Defense Coalition and Faith and Action, as part of a national campaign called "Leave a Christmas Place Setting for Pastor Saeed."
Pastor Abedini, 32, who is married and has two children, was arrested in July during a visit to Iran, his native country. He is reportedly awaiting trial at the infamous Evin Prison in northwestern Tehran, where he has been beaten by both guards and inmates. His American wife is in Boise, Idaho.
"While Americans sit down with their families and friends to celebrate the joy of Christmas, there are thousands of Christians around the world who are imprisoned and persecuted for their faith like Pastor Abedini," the Rev. Patrick J. Mahoney, Director of the Christian Defense Coalition, said in a statement Friday.
"'Leave a Christmas Place Setting for Pastor Saeed,' will serve as clear witness to pray and remember all those who are imprisoned and being brutalized around the world because of their Christian faith," Mahoney said. "The empty place setting is a powerful graphic that fathers will not be with their children this Christmas. Mothers will be separated from their families and children will be apart from their brothers and sisters."
The Rev. Rob Schenck, president of Faith and Action, said remembering imprisoned, persecuted and oppressed Christians worldwide is in keeping with the whole Christmas story.
"Jesus and his parents would flee persecution and become refugees. They went into hiding," Schenck added. "Jesus would later suffer imprisonment, torture, and death because of his obedience to God. Nothing could be more fitting for Christmas than to set a place for Pastor Saeed. Let us always remember."
Pastor Abedini converted to Christianity at age 20 when he was in Iran. He was attracted to the Christian faith after being disillusioned with his training to be a suicide bomber with an extremist Muslim group, according to Fox News. He met his American wife in Iran in 2002, and the two provided leadership to local Christians. They moved to the U.S. in 2005, and traveled to Iran several times from 2009 to 2012.
Abedini, who had earlier been detained and warned against his work with underground churches, has been in jail since his arrest in July, when he had gone to Iran to visit his parents and work on a humanitarian effort to build a non-sectarian orphanage. He was told he "must face a penalty for his previous work as a Christian leader in Iran."
In September, the pastor was indicted by an Iranian court on several charges, which have not been made public, according to the American Center for Law and Justice, which is legally representing Abedini.
Mahoney said believers must never forget the sacrifice of numerous Christian workers and "we must always remember their suffering."