(Photo: American Center for Law and Justice)
Naghmeh, the wife of U.S. Pastor Saeed Abedini, who is serving eight years in a deadly prison in Iran for his faith, broke down as she testified on Capitol Hill, saying she has no heart to tell their kids that daddy might never survive if the government fails to protect him.
"Saeed is a husband and amazing father," Naghmeh told a standing-room only crowd at the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission of the U.S. Congress on Friday. "The kids and I miss him terribly. Our kids hold onto the hope of seeing their daddy very soon," she said, struggling unsuccessfully to hold back her tears.
Pastor Abedini and Naghmeh have two kids, Rebekka Grace, 6, and Jacob Cyrus, 4. "A day does not go by that they do not ask for their daddy. A day does not go by that they do not long for him. Most nights they cry themselves to sleep, wanting daddy home."
She said her husband has been beaten and suffers internal bleeding. "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. "Many mornings they (the kids) wake up and start running around the house and in the yard. I ask them what they are doing and they say very disappointed 'it must have been a dream. We saw daddy was home and he was going to twirl us around.' I hold back my tears as I tell them that it was a dream."
Naghmeh added she still does not have "the heart to tell them that if we don't do anything, that daddy might never survive the horrific Evin prison. I do not have the heart to tell them of the 8 year sentence. I do hope we can work together to bring Saeed home and I will never have to tell my kids of the dire situation their father is in."
The State Department was invited to the hearing, but no official showed up. "The State Department was AWOL today – absent without leave," said Jay Sekulow, Chief Counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, which is representing Pastor Abedini's family in the U.S. "The State Department's no-show reflects a stunning lack of concern for an American wrongly imprisoned simply because of his Christian faith," said Sekulow, who also testified.
Naghmeh went on to say that her children could not understand why their father wasn't with them. "They kept saying, 'Does daddy not love us anymore?' ... And I had to tell them that he was in prison because he loved Jesus."
Saeed – who grew up in Iran before converting to Christianity at the age of 20 – traveled with his family back and forth between Iran and the U.S. several times in the past few years to meet his family and for Christian work. During one such trip in 2009, he was detained by Iranian officials and interrogated for his conversion. While he was released with a warning against engaging in any more underground church activities, he was once again arrested last July while working on a non-sectarian orphanage project.
In January, Iran's notorious Islamic Revolutionary Court convicted Pastor Abedini of "threatening the national security" by leading house churches years ago, and sentenced him to eight years in Tehran's deadly Evin Prison.
Despite her grief, Naghmeh said her husband holds to what he believes and "will not give in under any pressure from the Revolutionary Guards." Abedini, she said, is "standing up for religious freedom in a country that has no respect for human rights."
"Are we going to stand with him? Are we going to stand up as country and protect a citizen whose human right of religious freedom is so clearly violated?" she asked. "Americans are not all Christians; but every American – regardless of their beliefs – wants to be reassured and know that our government will take decisive action to protect us if someone uses force to try to make us abandon or change our beliefs."
Naghmeh said she was disappointed with the government. "I'm disappointed that our president and our State Department has not fully engaged in this case," she said. "I'm disappointed that this great country is not doing more to free my husband – a U.S. citizen. Yes, we are both proud to be American citizens. And I expect more from our government."
She recalled when Saeed became a U.S. citizen in 2010, he said "it was one of the best days of his life and he was so proud to be an American. He was so excited, he announced it on his social media and soon after, a flag was sent to him from Senator Carl Levin's office for the occasion of Saeed becoming a citizen. He was so proud!"
Many nations, including the European Union, have highlighted Pastor Abedini's case and called for his release before the U.N. "Our government did not," said Sekulow. "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," he said, of the UN Human Rights Council's meetings this month in Geneva that directly addressed the human rights crisis in Iran.
"I am hoping that we can bring Saeed home soon," said Naghmeh, also a U.S. citizen.