(Photo: The Christian Post/Tyler O'Neil)
WASHINGTON – Around 100 people including pastors, congressmen and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), joined in prayer and protest in front of the White House for Iranian-born pastor Saeed Abedini, to mark the one-year anniversary of his imprisonment.
"We are here today on a somber moment," Cruz told the crowd. "Pastor Abedini's only crime was professing his Christian faith, following the Great Commission of the Gospel."
Abedini, an Iranian-American pastor, was arrested on Sept. 26, 2012, while building orphanages in Iran. In January, he was sentenced to eight years in prison on charges of "planting house churches that are intended to undermine national security."
The protestors gathered in front of the White House because President Barack Obama has yet to issue a statement about pastor Abedini.
"This is not an issue because President Obama's a Democrat and we're mad," said the Rev. Pat Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition in Washington, D.C. Mahoney noted the support from Democrats as well as Republicans for pastor Abedini. "This is an issue because there's an American in jail and the only reason he's in jail is because he's Christian."
"We now have a U.S. citizen, an American, sitting in one of the worst prisons in the world – sitting when he can…only because of his Christian faith," said Jordan Sekulow, director of policy and international operations for the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ). He argued that the charges of national security are merely an excuse for arresting this outspoken Christian.
Sekulow also announced that prayer vigils were occurring in approximately 70 U.S. cities and 17 foreign countries. Sekulow added that pastor Abedini's wife, Nagmeh, spoke at the same time, and he noted that renowned evangelist Billy Graham had sent a letter to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and sponsored an ad in the New York Times requesting for Abedini's release.
Washington, D.C.-area pastors also spoke at the vigil, demanding their fellow pastor's release. L. Frazier White, pastor of Faith Tabernacle DC, emphasized the power of prayer. He acknowledged that he is new to the case, but said that he stands in solidarity with pastor Abedini because he represents the universal Church of Christ.
"The Bible has a story about a pastor called Moses who showed up to a government and he said, 'let my people go!'" said R. Ernest Castillo, vice president for multilingual ministries at the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Comparing pastor Abedini to the Israelites enslaved in Egypt, Castillo called on pastors across the world to stand in solidarity with the Iranian-American.
Various government officials also spoke on Abedini's behalf. Dwight Bashir, deputy director for policy and research at the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, read a letter to Mrs. Abedini from the commission's chair, Robert P. George.
"I am saddened and outraged that an Iranian appeals court last month upheld your husband's eight year prison term," Bashir read. In the letter, George called the trial a "sham" and a "miscarriage of justice," and pledged to advocate with the United States government in every way possible for Abedini's release.
"The United States government defends the universal rights of pastor Abedini and others who face ill-treatment and discrimination simply for exercising those rights," Jane B. Zimmerman, deputy assistant secretary of state in the US State Department, declared. "Freedom to practice one's own religion is a fundamental right enshrined in international law." She called for the pastor's immediate release.
Congressmen also addressed the vigil. Robert Pittenger (R-N.C.) compared the Iranian-American pastor to St. Stephen, the first martyr, and mentioned his reading Billy Graham's letter on the floor of the House of Representatives. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) condemned the Obama Administration for responding to Abedini's plight with "deafening silence."
The only senator to attend, Cruz closed the meeting, and joined the organizers and pastors in prayer at the sidewalk in front of the White House. From Tuesday afternoon until Wednesday at noon, the senator spoke for over 20 hours on the Senate Floor about the need to defund Obamacare. Nevertheless, he refused any questions about issues unrelated to Abedini when pressed by reporters following the event.
"Father, we lift up pastor Abedini," Cruz prayed. "We ask you to be with him every moment of every day, as he suffers. We ask for you to be with him as you were with Daniel in the lions' den. And as you held close the mouths of the lions, we ask that you give pastor Abedini the peace that comes from your love."