President Obama again called on Iran to release U.S. Pastor Saeed Abedini, who has been in a jail for his Christian faith for nearly two-and-a-half years, as the Middle Eastern nation celebrates the Nowruz holiday, a festival of spring and the beginning of the year in the Persian calendar.
"Today, as families across the world gather to mark this holiday, we remember those American families who are enduring painful separations from their loved ones who are imprisoned or went missing in Iran," Obama said in a statement.
"Saeed Abedini of Boise, Idaho has spent two and a half years detained in Iran on charges related to his religious beliefs. He must be returned to his wife and two young children, who needlessly continue to grow up without their father," he added.
Saeed's family, back in the United States, celebrated their son Jacob's seventh birthday this week – without the dad for the third straight year.
Obama earlier told Jacob he would "try" to bring Saeed home for his birthday, but Iran did not respond to calls for his release. Obama raised the issue of the pastor's detention also during his first phone conversation with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in September 2013.
"The spirit of family is deeply woven into all of the rich cultural traditions of the Nowruz holiday," Obama reminded Iran in his Saturday's statement. "It is a time for reuniting and rejoicing with loved ones and sharing hopes for the new year."
Nowruz is also a time of "renewal, compassion, and understanding," and "I reiterate my commitment to bringing our citizens home and call on the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran to immediately release Saeed Abedini, Amir Hekmati and Jason Rezaian and to work cooperatively with us to find Robert Levinson so that they all can be safely reunited with their families as soon as possible," Obama said.
American Center for Law and Justice, which has been working to secure Saeed's release, expressed gratitude to President Obama. "It is this engagement at the highest levels that continues to put pressure on Iran to release Pastor Saeed – a U.S. citizen," the group said.
"We urge the Obama Administration, as it literally sits across the negotiating table from Iran, to do all within its power to bring Pastor Saeed home. No American should be left behind to suffer unjustly in an Iranian prison simply because of his Christian faith," it added.
But Christian Examiner's Will Hall noted, "The online posting is not an official diplomatic communication, and it is not clear why the White House chose this medium to engage the issue when it has U.S. officials in direct contact with Iranian negotiators attempting to forge a deal about that country's controversial nuclear program."
Pastor Saeed has sustained prolonged internal injuries due to beatings in the prison. The pastor was recently "shaken" as six of his fellow prisoners were executed around him.
Saeed grew up in Iran before converting to Christianity at the age of 20. He later traveled with his family back and forth between Iran and the U.S. to meet other members of his family and for Christian work.
During one such trip in 2009, Saeed was detained by Iranian officials and interrogated for his conversion. While he was released with a warning against engaging in underground church activities, he was once again arrested in 2012 while working on a non-sectarian orphanage project.
Saeed was sentenced for endangering "national security," but the punishment has clearly more to do with Saeed's Christian faith.