The U.S. State Department and the White House finally called on Iran to release Pastor Saeed Abedini, a U.S. citizen facing a possible death sentence for his faith. The pastor's wife and senators and representatives had said the State Department wasn't doing enough.
"We condemn Iran's continued violation of the universal rights of freedom of religion, and we call on the Iranian authorities to respect Mr. Abedini's human rights and to release him," Department of State Spokesperson Victoria Nuland said during the daily news briefing at the State Department on Friday.
Abedini's attorney had only one day to present his defense, Nuland said on his trial, which began Monday. "And we remain deeply concerned about the fairness and the transparency of his trial. We are in close contact with his family as well and we're actively engaged in the case."
White House spokesman Jay Carney also spoke about Pastor Saeed's case during Friday's briefing with reporters. "We remain concerned about Saeed Abedini… Mr. Abedini was not allowed to attend his own trial, so we remain deeply concerned about the fairness and transparency of that trial," Carney said in response to a question from Fox Radio White House correspondent Mike Majchrowitz.
"We condemn Iran's continued violation of the universal right of the freedom of religion and we call on the Iranian authorities to release Mr. Abedini," Carney added. Asked about the reports that he might be missing, he referred Majchrowitz to the State Department. "They are, as I said, actively engaged in this case."
Abedini's family has said he has been removed from Evin Prison in the midst of his trial without Iranian authorities disclosing his whereabouts. After two days of trial, Judge Pir-Abassi, notoriously known as the "hanging judge," apparently told Pastor Abedini's lawyer, Dr. Naser Sarbazi, that he would see to the pastor being moved from his current ward in Evin Prison in Tehran to another ward, where he would receive better medical treatment.
However, the strong statements by the White House and the State Department have brought some hope.
"We applaud both the State Department and the White House for these very strong statements," said Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice, which is representing Abedini's family in the U.S. "It is vitally important that the U.S. government do all that it can to secure the freedom of Pastor Saeed, a U.S. citizen," Sekulow said in a statement, noting this comes after more than 235,000 petition signatures, dozens of ACLJ media appearances, tireless efforts from Naghmeh and letters signed by 49 U.S. Senators and Representatives.
Fox News reported on Friday that the pastor's wife, Naghmeh Abedini, was disappointed with the State Department for failing to respond. "Every day counts. He is being tortured," she was quoted as saying. "They (State Department) can do so much more. I've been so heartbroken. It's as though we are letting the Iranian government lead with their interpretation of what he's done wrong instead of protecting our American ideals." She said it was painful to see her own husband taken from her for so long. "What would you do? You would do everything in your power. I would want the State Dept. to do everything in their power to get him out and bring him home."
A week earlier, about 50 members of the House of Representatives wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's office. "If our own State Department fails to advocate for a U.S. citizen who faces injustice in a country that is widely regarded as one of the most egregious human rights abusers, then I believe they have failed in one of their most fundamental responsibilities to American citizens," said Rep. Trent Franks, (R-Ariz.), who chairs the House Bipartisan International Religious Freedom Caucus.
Pastor Abedini appeared in the courtroom on the first day of his trial on Monday. Prosecutors alleged he has a politically subversive influence on young people and therefore poses a threat to the national security. The pastor and his attorney were barred from the court during a hearing on Tuesday, when lay church leaders were reportedly forced to testify against Abedini.
A verdict for the trial can be expected next week. If convicted of converting Muslim youth, the pastor can receive a lengthy jail sentence or even the death penalty.
Abedini – 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.