(Photo: REUTERS/Evan Vucci)
Secretary of State John Kerry urged Iran to release imprisoned US pastor Saeed Abedini and two other Americans detained in Iran in a new statement on Wednesday, calling on the men to be reunited with their families.
"On September 26, Mr. Abedini will have spent a year in detention in Iran. He was sentenced to eight years in prison on charges related to his religious beliefs," Kerry wrote, while also raising concerns for two other American citizens missing or held in Iran, Robert Levinson and Amir Hekmati.
Pastor Abedini has been in Evin Prison in Tehran ever since being arrested in 2012 while building an orphanage in Iran, and later sentenced to 8 years in prison, supposedly for endangering national security.
The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which represents Abedini's wife, Naghmeh, and their two children, has argued that the sentence has more to do with the pastor's Christian faith.
Earlier this week, a court appeal to have the pastor's sentence reduced, was rejected, which has been described as a "devastating blow" for his family.
The ACLJ and Naghmeh Abedini have led an international campaign calling for the pastor's release and demanding that he be given the proper medical care that he needs following serious health problems. Their efforts have been backed by a number of U.S. politicians and close to 620,000 people worldwide who have signed a petition in Abedini's support, though Naghmeh has called on President Barack Obama to directly speak out about the case.
Kerry, who has called for Abedini's release before, said of the US citizens being held in the Islamic country: "These men belong at home with those who love them and miss them."
The ACLJ praised Kerry's statement, but said that more needs to be done if Abedini stands a chance to be reunited with his family back home.
"We welcome this renewed involvement and effort initiated by Secretary Kerry to bring Pastor Saeed – a U.S. citizen imprisoned for his faith – back home to his wife and young children," the legal group said on its website.
"While Secretary Kerry's statement puts Pastor Saeed's case back in the diplomatic spotlight, paper statements alone will not bring about his freedom. It is time for the President of the United States to engage his case. When a U.S. citizen – a Christian Pastor – is illegally imprisoned in a foreign land, it should be a top priority of the President to bring him home," it added.
Naghmeh Abedini echoed that statement by expressing her gratitude for Kerry's words, but also shared hopes that Obama will speak out as well.
"While, I am pleased with this development, I still expect my president, President Obama, who has remained silent thus far, to speak out on this very critical human rights issue and let the Iranian government and the world know that religious freedom is still a top priority for our government," Nahmeh Abedini said.
"President Obama must demonstrate that America will not stay silent in the face of religious persecution, nor will it let an American citizen waste away in an Iranian prison simply because he chose to follow Jesus," she added.
A nationwide prayer vigil for Abedini is planned for the anniversary of his imprisonment on Sept. 26.