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Rouhani visit to US may indicate thaw

04 October 2013


Pastoral concern: Senator Ted Cruz stands with members of the Christian Defense Coalition in front of the White House, Washington, DC, on Thursday of last week, marking the first anniversary of the imprisonment in Iran of Saeed Abedini, an Iranian American pastor

Pastoral concern: Senator Ted Cruz stands with members of the Christian Defense Coalition in front of the White House, Washington, DC, on Thursday o...

THE first signs of a thaw in relations between Iran and the West have raised the hopes of Iranian Christians that the restrictions that they have faced for decades could eventually be eased.

The long break in high-level contacts between Iran and the United States was ended during President Hassan Rouhani's visit to the UN Headquarters in New York last week. Not only did he meet the Secretary of State, John Kerry, he also held a 15-minute telephone conversation with President Obama.

To the delight of Iranian Christians - in Iran and elsewhere - President Obama used the telephone encounter to express concern about an American minister and two other US citizens imprisoned in Iran. Pastor Saeed Abedini, from Idaho, was arrested while visiting his family in Iran a year ago. His wife, Naghmeh, said that President Obama's decision to raise the issue during his talks with President Rouhani was an "answer to prayer. This is the most encouraging news I have heard since Saeed was imprisoned one year ago."

Mrs Abedini also succeeded in handing over to a member of President Rouhani's entourage a letter that her husband had written to the new Iranian leader.

Over past months, the Obama administration has been criticised for failing to take sufficient action to secure the release of Pastor Abedini and the other Americans held in Iranian prisons. During the summer, the White House responded to this pressure by issuing a statement denouncing their imprisonment.

While the change of leadership in Tehran might lead, in time, to easier conditions for Iranian Christians, at present the discrimination and re-strictions continue. The UN Human Rights Council in Geneva last month heard a report that spoke of many Christians' having been "arrested and detained over the past six years.

"Charges vary, and include, but are not limited to, holding Christian belief, setting up Christian ceremonies at home and evangelising, membership of an illegal group, acting against public security, activities against Islam, and co-operating with anti-government movements."

During the summer it was reported that Bishop Ignazio Bedini, of St Abraham's Latin Catholic Church, in Tehran, had been ordered by the Iranian security authorities to prohibit attendance at services by Farsi-speaking Christians, and those who had not been baptised. The Bishop was told that failure to heed the order would result in the withdrawal of his work visa.

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