The U.S. State Department did not to show up on Friday during a congressional hearing on the case of American pastor Saeed Abedini, who is currently serving eight years in prison in Tehran, Iran.
"It is amazing," Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in the House, told Fox News. "I can't, almost, believe it."
American Center for Law and Justice Chief Counsel Jay Sekulow, who testified at the hearing, called the State Department's absence "offensive."
"The State Department was AWOL today – absent without leave," said Sekulow. "The State Department's refusal to testify at this critical hearing is offensive to the family of Pastor Saeed – a U.S. citizen held hostage in one of Iran's most deadly prisons. Instead of appearing before Congress and calling on Iran to release Pastor Saeed, the State Department's no-show reflects a stunning lack of concern for an American wrongly imprisoned simply because of his Christian faith."
Abedini, a former Muslim who converted to Christianity, was arrested last year and convicted for "endangering" national security in Iran, though many say the real reason for his conviction was his previous activities of helping underground churches in his country of birth and building an orphanage for children.
Sekulow, who is representing his wife, Nagmeh, and their two young children back in Idaho, on Friday called for more U.S. involvement in freeing Abedini, who has been beaten, tortured and pressured to renounce his faith while in jail.
"Many nations – including the European Union – have highlighted Pastor Saeed's case and called for his release before the U.N. Our government did not," Sekulow pointed out in a statement. "With an opportunity to condemn Iran and demand his freedom on a global stage, the U.S. government never mentioned him at all – ignored the plight of a U.S. citizen imprisoned in Iran. And, today, at this vital hearing, the State Department was AWOL – they did not show up today. Pastor Saeed and his family deserve more from their government."
Secretary of State John Kerry and the State Department spoke out in defense of Pastor Abedini earlier this year, but the ACLJ hoped that more direct action would be taken to help the Christian preacher who converted from Islam in 2000.
"By refusing to petition for Pastor Saeed's release before the U.N. Human Rights Council, our State Department acted like a lawyer who advocates for his client on the courthouse steps but won't say anything at all to the judge," Sekulow said. "The State Department's decision to snub this commission cannot be seen as anything less than a wanton disregard to stand up and speak out for those who cannot."
Rep. Wolf said that the State Department's decision not to show up to the hearing speaks volumes about their inaction.
"The building is loaded with people," he said in reaction to the State Department's explanation that they had "no one available" to send on Friday. "The very fact that the United States government is not speaking out sends a very powerful message."
Naghmeh Abedini, an American citizen, prepared a written statement for the hearing where she revealed that neither President Obama nor anyone from the State Department had contacted her about her husband's situation, and that she is "disappointed" with the U.S. government for not even showing up to the hearing.
"I am disappointed that our president and our State Department have not fully engaged this case – disappointed that this great country is not doing more to free my husband, a U.S. citizen," her statement says. "We are both proud to be American citizens. And I expect more from our government."
She expressed concern that her husband might not survive the "horrific Evin prison." "The truth is we do not know if we will ever speak to him or see him again. Every day is a death sentence for him," she said.
A global petition for the release of Pastor Abedini crossed the half-million mark and reached 513,000 signatures by Friday morning, which the ACLJ had been striving for before the congressional hearing.