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US Pastor Visiting Iran Arrested for Converting to Christianity?

The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), a Washington D.C.-based human rights firm, announced Dec. 19 that it will be legally representing the family of the Rev. Saeed Abedini, a Christian convert and U.S. immigrant who is currently being imprisoned in Iran for his Christian faith.

"This is a very troubling pattern that we have seen inside Iran -- Christian husbands and fathers who are punished for their religious beliefs," Jordan Sekulow, Executive Director of the ACLJ, said in a Dec. 19 press release.

"What makes this particular case so much more disturbing is that Pastor Saeed, who was born and raised in Iran, has been granted U.S. citizenship. He's been in prison for nearly three months simply because of his Christian faith," Sekulow continued.

"Now, he's been indicted by an Iranian court -- a development that could very well result in a death sentence. In addition to our legal work, it's important to get this story out -- to generate global support for Pastor Saeed and to engage the U.N. and the U.S. government in securing his release," Sekulow added.

According to Fox News, Abedini, 32, converted to Christianity in his native country of Iran at age 20 after slipping into a deep depression while training to be a suicide bomber with an extremist Muslim group.

The pastor then met his American wife in Iran in 2002, and the two worked as Christian leaders together, until they eventually moved to the U.S. in 2005, where Abedini gained U.S. citizenship. The Abedinis live in Boise, Idaho, according the the pastor's Facebook page.

Abedini became a revered Christian leader in Iran because he formed a small yet effective network of underground house churches which allow former Muslims who converted to Christianity to worship.

According to Fox News, Abedini and his wife, with whom he has two children, ages six and four, traveled to and from the U.S. and Iran several times from 2009 to 2012 to visit his family.

During one said trip in 2009, Abedini was detained and interrogated for converting to Christianity. The pastor was released by Iranian officials, who forced him to sign an official agreement stating that the government would not charge him for his Christian activities and he would be allowed to enter and exit the country freely, as long as he stopped performing official house church duties.

In July 2012, Abedini was reportedly making one of his several routine visits back to Iran to visit his parents and work on a humanitarian effort to build a non-sectarian orphanage when he was arrested and told he "must face a penalty for his previous work as a Christian leader in Iran," according to Fox News, which was one of the first media outlets to break Abedini's story.

The pastor was put on house arrest for a few months, and then in September he was reportedly indicted by an Iranian court on several charges, which have not been made public, according to the ACLJ press release.

Abedini is reportedly awaiting trial at the infamous Evin Prison in northwestern Tehran, where he has been beaten by both guards and inmates, according to the ACLJ.

The pastor's wife, Naghmeh, told Fox News that when her husband converted to Christianity, "he became a criminal in his own country. His passion was to reach the people of Iran."

The ACLJ has launched an international campaign to draw attention to the pastor's plight, urging human rights activists to sign a petition addressed to U.S. President Barack Obama, the U.S. Secretary of State, and the United States Congress, asking them to pressure Iran regarding Abedini's imprisonment.

"We know that the Iranian government is sensitive to international pressure," Jordan Sekulow said in the recent press release.

"We have seen that in the Pastor Youcef case. Now, we have an Iranian-born Christian, who holds a U.S. passport, being punished for his beliefs. Pastor Saeed's alleged crime: converting to Christianity and proclaiming his Christian faith. His imprisonment and indictment violates international human rights and religious freedom laws. That's why it is so critical to challenge this imprisonment both legally and in the court of public opinion around the world," Sekulow added.

The ACLJ also helped free another Iranian pastor, Youcef Nadarkhani, who had been imprisoned in Iran for his Christian faith for three years until he was released in Sept. 2012 due to an immense amount of international pressure.

Although Iranian officials refuse to notify Abedini, his family, or his lawyers of his specific charges, the ACLJ contends that the Christian minister's charges could very well result in a lengthy prison term or possibly the death penalty.

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