Imprisoning Religion: Iran Persecutes American Pastor for Converting to Christianity

by Laura Giunta

The arrest and subsequent imprisonment of Saeed Abedini, an American Pastor being punished in Iran for his religious beliefs, is just the latest of Iran’s many human rights violations against Christians. While American human rights groups, such as ACLJ (American Center for Justice and Law), have been rightly lobbying to free Abedini from his unjust incarceration, it is not enough to save only Abedini from religious persecution.  Iranian Christians face continuous oppression under their nation’s totalitarian regime. All infringements on their basic human right to religious liberty must be stopped.

Saeed AbediniThirteen years ago, Saeed Abedini converted to Christianity. Today, he languishes in an Iranian prison because of that belief.  Although officially convicted for “endangering national security,” the ACLJ and other supports contend the arrest and conviction are a result of both his conversion from Islam to Christianity  and his past aid to Iranian Christians. The proceedings lacked all the necessary protections of due process. Abedini’s attorney was given only one day to present a defense for his client, and neither he nor Abedini were allowed to participate in all the legal proceedings. Now imprisoned, Abedini is facing “physical and psychological torture” at the hands of his captors, who want him to renounce his faith.

Abedini, however, is not the only one to face such persecution at the hands of the Iran government.  Iran’s apostasy law dictates that “anyone from a Muslim background who becomes a Christ-follower faces the death penalty.”  Although the last Christian pastor to be executed for apostasy was Hossein Soodmand in 1990, other Iranian Christians have been unfairly imprisoned, tortured, and threatened with death for either practicing or preaching their Christian beliefs.

One such example is Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, who was arrested in 2009 for protesting “the Islamic indoctrination in his sons’ school system.” He served three years in prison, in which he repeatedly refused offers of exoneration if he would recant his Christian beliefs.  An order was signed for his execution, but Nadarkhani was eventually acquitted and released. This was “only due to intense international pressure.”

Farshid Fathi, a Christian leader from Tehran, Iran’s capital, was arrested in December 2010 as part of a “Christmas crackdown on Christians.” He is currently serving six years in prison for “acting against national security,” “contact with enemy foreign countries,” and “religious propoganda.” A report from the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran found that from 2010 to 2012, over 300 Christians have been arrested and imprisoned in Iran for their religious beliefs. The report also found that these detainees lacked due process and were often mistreated, if not tortured, while imprisoned.

So what can be done to stop the endless onslaught of religious persecution against Iranian Christians by their own government? Already groups, such as the aforementioned ACLJ, have called upon the nations of the world to take action, particularly with the case of Abedini.  ACLJ’s European affiliate has already asked for the United Nations Human Rights Council to intercede on behalf of Abedini. In addition, 84 members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives have written a bipartisan letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, asking for him “to exhaust every possible option to secure Mr. Abedini’s immediate release.”  They remind that “[a]s a U.S. citizen, Mr. Abedini deserves nothing less than the exercising of every diplomatic tool of the U.S. government to defend his basic human rights.”

American citizens have also rallied behind Abedini and called for his release, with an online petition from the ACLJ calling on President Obama, Kerry, and Congress to “take all available diplomatic and legislative action to pressure Iran to respect religious freedom and release Pastor Saeed.” The petition has already generated over 300,000 signatures.

As ACLJ executive director Jordan Sekulow noted, “We know that international pressure works. We saw that with case of Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, who was released for a second time earlier this year after being sentenced to execution of apostasy…. His freedom is the direct result of immense international pressure.” Like with Nadarkhani, the hope is that if the pressure from international governments and human rights groups is intense enough, Iran will succumb to it and finally release Abedini.  But, if Abedini is released, what is the next course of action?  While Abedini’s freedom will no doubt be a great victory in favor of human rights, there are still countless other Christians in Iran who are being persecuted and need help.

Abedini’s struggle is symbolic of hundreds of Iranian Christians who suffer the same injustice.  We now focus our efforts on Abedini and push for his release, but we must not stop there.  Even if Abedini is released, international pressure must continue for Iran to stop violating the religious liberty of its own citizens and allow all its citizens to worship in the way they choose, without fear of arrest, imprisonment, torture, or death for their beliefs.  As a nation, we must join with other fair, democratic, and peaceful countries who believe in the basic human right of freedom of religion and not only hold Iran accountable for their myriad of human rights violations, but demand that their attacks against Iranian Christians end.

Our work will not be done with the freedom of Abedini, but will only be finished when we are certain that all Iranians, no matter what their religious beliefs, can freely and openly worship without the threat of persecution.


Laura Giunta has a Master’s degree from St. John’s University. She is a children’s librarian residing in New York State.  

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