The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has joined calls for the release of American pastor Saeed Abedini, who is set to stand trial and possibly face the death penalty in Iran next week.
"The national security charges leveled against Mr. Abedini are bogus and are a typical tactic by the Iranian government to masquerade the real reason for the charges: to suppress religious belief and activity of which the Iranian government does not approve. USCIRF calls on the Iranian government to release Mr. Abedini immediately and unconditionally," wrote Katrina Lantos Swett, the Chair of the congressionally established commission.
A 32-year old U.S. citizen who was born in Iran but converted to Christianity at the age of 20, later marrying his American wife Nagmeh, Pastor Abedini has long been targeted by Iranian authorities for helping underground churches in Iran and for his charity work establishing orphanages. He has been warned and detained by Iranian officials before for his work, but was imprisoned in July 2011 when authorities once again apprehended him during one of his trips from America to Iran. He is currently being held in Evin Prison in Tehran.
His attorney was given the court file earlier this week, which revealed that the U.S. pastor is set to stand trial as early as Monday, Jan. 21 – giving his lawyer very little time to prepare for what many are calling a "sham" trial. Abedini has expressed fears he might be given the death penalty after it was revealed that his case was transferred over to a notorious "hanging judge" that the European Union has named as an individual subject to sanctions for human rights violations for sentencing a number of human right activists to death.
The charge that authorities have been made against Abedini apparently refers back to 2000, when the pastor converted to Christianity, and alleges that he has "endangering" the national security of Iran. The American Center for Law and Justice, who are representing his wife and two children back in the U.S., said that it was "a typical charge brought by the radical Islamic regime against those it wishes to persecute for their religious beliefs. His court file indicated that this national security charge was directly related to his work starting a house church movement in Iran."
"Judge Pir-Abbassi is notorious for conducting swift trials and imposing lengthy prison terms, as well as the death penalty, without any semblance of due process," Swett added in the USCIRF statement, referring to the "hanging judge" in question.
The ACLJ further reminded concerned citizens that although President Barack Obama and the rest of the U.S. marked National Religious Freedom Day on Jan. 16, pastors like Abedini and many other people of faith remain imprisoned based on dubious charges, and the State Department needs to step up and do everything possible to help them in their plight.
"Today, we also remember that religious liberty is not just an American right; it is a universal human right to be protected here at home and across the globe. This freedom is an essential part of human dignity, and without it our world cannot know lasting peace," Obama wrote in a statement on Jan. 16.
The ACLJ says that over 100,000 people have signed a petition to the U.S. Congress calling for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to personally speak up for Pastor Abedini's release.