Thursday, March 28, 2013

An American Christian’s Letter from an Iranian Prison

Thanks to a letter received by his family last week, new details have emerged about Pastor Saeed Abedini, an American citizen and Christian convert from Islam, who has been held in Iran’s brutal Evin Prison since September of last year and was sentenced in January to eight years in prison for “evangelizing and threatening national security.”

Written probably weeks ago on the margins of scraps of newspaper, it is only the third letter Abedini has been able to get to his family during his imprisonment. In it he gives damning details of the abuse he has received solely for his infidel faith:

I was blindfolded and a guard was holding my hand guiding me. He asked “what are you here for? What is your crime?” I said “I am Christian pastor.” All of the sudden he let go of my hand and said, “So you are unclean! I will tell others not to defile themselves by touching you!” He would tell others not to get close to me.

A nurse and doctor too told him the same thing when he asked for relief from the pain he had suffered from beatings. “In our religion we are not supposed to touch you,” the nurse told him. “You are unclean.” Abedini wrote: “She did not treat me and that night I could not sleep from the intense pain I had. According to the doctor’s instructions, they would not give me the pain medication that they would give other prisoners because I was unclean.”

He also wrote that he could not fall asleep one night because of the pain, as he listened to the sound of “dirty sewer rats with their loud noises and screeches.” At one point he said hello to his own reflection in an elevator mirror “because I did not recognize myself. My hair was shaven, under my eyes were swollen three times what they should have been, my face was swollen, and my beard had grown.” The pastor explained in the letter how he is trying to focus on forgiveness, and how he forgave the interrogator who beat him as well as those who refused to give him the pain medication.

After coming under criticism for neglecting to specifically address the case at a recent meeting in Geneva on Iran’s human rights record, Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, the U.S. representative on the U.N. Human Rights Council, said:

We repeat our call for the government of Iran to release Mr. Abedini, and others who are unjustly imprisoned, and to cease immediately its persecution of all religious minority communities. The United States also repeats its call for the government of Iran to provide without delay the urgent medical attention Mr. Abedini needs.

An attorney for the Abedini family called it the “first pro-active statement by... our administration” in the case. The State Department also declined to provide a witness to testify last week during a Capitol Hill hearing where Mrs. Abedini spoke.  In a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, Rep. Frank Wolf and other lawmakers urged him “in the strongest possible terms, to make this case and the broader issue of religious freedom a priority as Secretary of State.”

Kerry did finally make a statement, in which he said he was “deeply concerned” and “disturbed by reports that Mr. Abedini has suffered physical and psychological abuse in prison, and that his condition has become increasingly dire”:

I am also troubled by the lack of due process in Mr. Abedini’s case and Iran’s continued refusal to allow consular access...  I welcome reports that Mr. Abedini was examined by a physician and expect Iranian authorities to honor their commitment to allow Mr. Abedini to receive treatment for these injuries from a specialist outside the prison.

Too little, too late? At least international outrage from other quarters has pressured the Iranian authorities to promise Abedini medical treatment – a promise no one is confident will be kept.

Nina Shea, Director of the Center for Religious Freedom, expressed her disappointment with Kerry’s press release, and her cynicisml about its “outrageous” timing, as “it was included in the Friday night ‘document dump’ – released at 6:01 pm, it appears that it was deliberately held until just after the close of the work week.” In addition,

[i]t fails to mention that Abedini is a Christian pastor and that he is imprisoned for his Christian faith. Religious freedom is a basic human right, set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and one that is of special importance to the United States both in the Constitution where it is enshrined as the first clause of the First Amendment, and as a pillar of foreign policy in the International Religious Freedom Act.

Unfortunately, the religious freedom of Islam’s victims is not of special importance to the Obama administration; if it were, the administration wouldn’t be ignoring Christians in danger of extermination everywhere in Islamic territories, or financially and ideologically supporting the supremacists committing the genocide.

“The persecution of Christians has increased,” said Ahmed Shaheed, the UN’s expert on human rights in Iran. “It seems to target new converts and those who run house churches.” His report, the latest evidence that Iran’s leaders are actively stamping out religious freedom for minorities and dissenters in the Islamic Republic, claims that at least 13 Christians are currently in detention centers across Iran, and more than 300 Christians have been arrested since June 2010. There is a “new Islamization in part of the government” that might explain the spike in repression targeting Christians, Shaheed added. In addition to Christians, the nation’s 350,000 Baha’i, Iran’s largest non-Muslim faith, are suffering repression.

Mohammad Reza Noroozpour, spokesman for Iran's High Council for Human Rights, insists that freedom of expression is tolerated “except where there is infringement of the basic tenets of Islam or public rights.” Note the telling phrase, except where Islam is infringed upon.

But as Fox News reports, Dwight Bashir, deputy director for policy at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said, “Over the past year, the Iranian government has stooped to new lows by incarcerating infant children with their Baha'i mothers and more brutally, clamping down on Christian converts from Islam.”

It is Pastor Saeed Abedini’s misfortune that he is a Christian persecuted by Muslims solely for his faith, because if he were a Muslim fundamentalist imprisoned in a Western country for an actual crime – like, say, the Blind Sheikh – then the Obama administration would move heaven and earth to free him.

(This article originally appeared here on FrontPage Mag, 3/26/13)