Two Christians Among 11 Prisoners Freed by Iran; Calls Continue for Pastor Abedini's Release

Two Christians are among the 11 prisoners of conscience released earlier this week by Iran, which has also been called to release other detainees, including American Pastor Saeed Abedini.

"CSW welcomes the release of Maryam Jaiili and Mitra Rahmati, Nasrin Sotoudeh and the other prisoners. While this positive step by the Iranian government is to be commended, it is by no means sufficient given the vast number of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience," Christian Solidarity Worldwide Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas said in a statement.

"CSW continues to call for the unconditional release of all of these prisoners, including Farshid Fathi, Benham Irani, Saeed Abedini, Shahin Lahooti, the seven Baha'i leaders, and others who belong to religious minorities and have been unjustly detained."

A number of reports praised the recent move by Iran's authorities, coming under the leadership of new president Hassan Rouhani, which has been seen as an important step toward improving international relations. The release of the 11 prisoners comes just a week before Rouhani's planned visit to the U.N. general assembly in New York.

Among the released prisoners were Nasrin Sotoudeh, a prominent 50-year-old women's rights activist, and dissident journalist Mahsa Amrabadi. Seven women in total were freed, as well as four men, including reformist politicians Feizollah Arabsorkhi, Mirtaher Mousavi and former deputy foreign minister Mohsen Aminzadeh, The Guardian reported.

The two Christians, Maryam Jaiili and Mitra Rahmati, were released from Evin Prison in Tehran on Wednesday. As converts from Islam, they were arrested on Christmas Eve in 2009, CSW shared, before being temporarily released in March 2010 and re-arrested in April 2011, apparently for being members "of an illegal group."

Rouhani has been described as a moderate and a pragmatist president, who has said that he will aim at upholding the rights of women and religious minorities. He has also pledged to set up a "civil rights charter" to work for equality without discrimination based on race, religion, or gender.

A number of other Christians remain imprisoned in Iran, however, such as U.S. Pastor Saeed Abedini, whose one year anniversary in detention in Evin Prison is approaching next week. While sentenced to 8 years in prison supposedly for endangering national security, groups such as the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which is representing his wife, Naghmeh, and two children in the U.S., have said that his Christian faith is the real reason behind his punishment.

"While we of course welcome this humanitarian gesture in Iran, it's past time for Iran to release Pastor Saeed Abedini. His only crime is his Christian faith, he presents no threat to Iranian national security, and he only wants to return home to his family in Idaho. There is simply no just cause for continuing a prison sentence that violates not only the Iranian constitution but also international human rights conventions," ACLJ Executive Director Jordan Sekulow said, commentating on the released prisoners.

"There is no better time for President Rouhani to release this American pastor than during his first trip to American soil."

The ACLJ has started a letter-writing campaign encouraging people to write to Rouhani and petition for Abedini's release – close to 59,000 have joined the effort so far.

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