AN IRANIAN Christian pastor imprisoned for three years in Iran has finally been freed as part of a prisoner-swap deal with the United States, which this week lifted punitive sanctions against the country.
Pastor Saeed Abedini, 35, who was originally from Iran but lives in Idaho with his wife and family, was arrested in 2012 when he was setting up an orphanage. A convert to Christianity, he was accused and convicted of undermining national security, and was sentenced to eight years in jail (News, 8 March 2013).
But last weekend he was released, along with three other Iranian-American prisoners, as part of a prisoner swap. The announcement of the lifting of global sanctions was only made after the aeroplane carrying the released prisoners had left Iranian airspace — an indicator of levels of concern over the sanctions deal, in which Iran agreed to curb its nuclear activities in return for a lifting of the economic sanctions.
Mr Abedini’s wife, Naghmeh, said that President Obama had phoned her to tell her of her husband’s release. In a Facebook post to supporters, she said: “I wanted to say thank you to all of you for having prayed and who have wept with us, have signed petitions and have called your government officials. Thank you for having stood with our family during this difficult journey.”.
She thanked particularly the evangelist Franklin Graham for seeing her family “through this ordeal”.
The couple have two children. Mr Abedini converted to Christianity from Islam at the age of 20, and is said to have set up about 100 house churches in Iran. He was forced to leave the country with his American wife, however, in 2008, after a crackdown on house churches by the Iranian government.
The four released prisoners were flown initially to Switzerland, then on to Germany to receive medical treatment. Mr Abedini and the other prisoners are believed to have suffered emotional and physical abuse during their ordeal.
The charity Release International, which works to raise awareness of persecuted Christians around the world, welcomed the release of Mr Abedini, but said that 90 other Christians still remain imprisoned for their faith in Iran.
Pastor Behnam Irani, also a convert to Christianity, has been in prison for five years after facing the same charge of undermining national security (News, 28 December 2011). He is due to be released at the end of October this year, though Release International said that Mr Irani had been warned that he would not leave prison alive, because of his faith.