By Erin Roach
WASHINGTON (BP) — Pastor Saeed Abedini, a U.S. citizen of Iranian descent imprisoned in Tehran, tells of the torture he has endured for his faith as well as the joy that comes with forgiving his perpetrators in a letter to his family released by the American Center for Law and Justice March 22.
The letter comes one day after a U.S. State Department official finally mentioned Abedini’s case before a global audience and called for his release.
Abedini’s ordeal is happening during a period of numerous arrests of Iranian Christians, according to Morning Star News. The increase in arrests, the news service said, is likely related to the upcoming presidential elections.
Christians in Iran, according to World Watch Monitor, are routinely arrested and interrogated because Iranian authorities view Christianity as a deviant anti-government movement and Christians as pawns of the West.
In the letter written on scraps of newsprint, a badly beaten Abedini said he is able to endure because the joy of the Lord is his strength and he has learned to forgive those who persecute him.
“I forgave the prison doctor who did not listen to me and did not give me the medication that I needed. I forgave the interrogator who beat me,” Abedini wrote. “… The minute I forgave them and loved them, that second I was filled with unspeakable joy. … Love is as strong as death.”
He described an incident when a prison guard learned he was a Christian pastor and replied, “You are unclean!”
“It really broke my heart,” the pastor wrote perhaps weeks ago. “The nurse also would come to take care of us and provide us with treatment, but she said in front of others ‘in our religion we are not supposed to touch you, you are unclean.'”
The doctor, Abedini said, had instructed that he not receive the pain medication that other prisoners received because he was considered unclean.
When Abedini, who frequently is blindfolded, caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror of an elevator, he did not recognize himself.
“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,” he wrote.
In the letter the pastor expressed deep concern for his wife Naghmeh, who is waiting for him with their two young children in the United States, and for his parents in Iran who have tried tirelessly to free him from prison.
Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice, reported March 22 that Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe of the U.S. State Department on Thursday called for Abedini’s release before the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland.
Abedini’s “continuing harsh treatment at the hands of Iranian authorities” exemplifies the worsening plight of religious minorities in Iran, Donahoe 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,” she added. “The United States also repeats its call for the government of Iran to provide without delay the urgent medical attention Mr. Abedini needs.”
ACLJ reported March 18 that Abedini had been examined for internal bleeding sustained from the repeated beatings he has endured in Iran’s infamously brutal Evin prison. He was promised medical attention at a private hospital outside the prison, but there was no word on when or if this would actually occur.
Abedini also was granted recently an extended two-hour visit with his Iranian family, which Sekulow took as a sign that international pressure is working.
“Now is the time to step up the pressure,” Sekulow wrote. “We know Iran is listening.”
Nearly 550,000 people have signed a petition at SaveSaeed.org calling for Abedini’s release, and several U.S. congressmen are advocating on his behalf. ACLJ continues to call for Secretary of State John Kerry to make a public, proactive statement calling on Iran to release Abedini without delay.
Abedini has become a widely known face of religious persecution in Iran, but as Morning Star News said, there are many others. Five Christian converts arrested last year in Iran went on trial March 10 and were given enormous bail terms.
Outlandish bail terms often are used as a tool to create economic hardship for converts and their families and churches, a representative of Christian Solidarity Worldwide said.
Police originally arrested the five men and two others at a house prayer service. The arrests were part of a larger crackdown against non-Islamic religious groups perceived as posing a threat to the theocratic regime, Morning Star News said.
Charges of threatening national security often are leveled at converts to Christianity in the Islamic Republic, which considers apostates from Islam a dangerous, uncontrolled element in society.
The five men are members of the Church of Iran, a heavily persecuted denomination to which jailed pastor Benham Irani also belongs, Morning Star News said. Irani continues to languish in prison under a six-year sentence for “acting against the interests of national security.”
Also imprisoned, facing a nine-year sentence, is Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, the attorney who defended another long-imprisoned Iranian pastor Yousef Nadarkhani whose freedom was the focus of a worldwide campaign that resulted in his release last year.
At least four other Christians are on trial in Iran. They were arrested a year ago in a house church meeting and charged with Christian activities, disturbing national security and distributing propaganda, Morning Star News reported. They apparently were brought to several court appearances in chains, which is illegal even under Iranian law.
In a report March 16, World Watch Monitor cited a rare crackdown on Christians in Isfahan, Iran’s third-largest city. The increased persecution is believed to be a tactic to discourage Muslims and converts to Christianity from attending official churches.
Since February, World Watch Monitor said, officials have arrested about 12 Christian converts in Isfahan, including seven who were taken from their homes along with valuables including their Bibles, computers and important documents. None have been officially charged.
Iran is the fifth-worst persecutor of Christians in the world, according to an assessment by the Christian support group Open Doors.
Following is the text of Saeed Abedini’s letter, translated into English and circulated by the American Center for Law and Justice March 22:
Hello to my dear love and wife,
When I saw my family for the first time behind the glass walls, I could see my mom four meters away. As she approached me and saw my face, she broke down and could not get closer. She was crying. I understood what she felt because after weeks of being in solitary confinement in Evin Prison, I also got to see my face in the mirror of an elevator that was taking me to the prison hospital. I said hi to the person staring back at me 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.
It was a few days ago when one of my family members, with weary eyes and after running around for 15 weeks in trying to get me out of prison, said that my dad says every single day that “this week I will get my son out of prison.” But this does not happen and he is not able to get me out of prison. In that instant I looked into the wrinkled and tired eyes of my dad. I could clearly see that he had ran around for months and he had no more strength left in him. It was very hard seeing my family in such a situation.
You, my wife, on the other side of the world, alone with the kids. Alone and worried. My family here in Iran, being interrogated, tired and under so much pressure.
With the loud voice of the prison guard, our visitation had ended and they put covers over our eyes and we returned to the dark room void of any natural sunlight.
I started praying for my family. My dear Naghmeh. You are the love of my life. I am always in love with you.
Dear Naghmeh, I have been stung so many times that I have become full of poison. This is an Iranian saying. A lot of people say that they have been stung by so many people that their whole being is full of poison like a poisonous snake. It means that we have been bitten by the snakes of this world so many times that, that all of the poison has collected in us and that we are like the poisonous snake. But if we sting anyone, we will die. This Iranian saying is full of spirit of revenge and unforgiveness and every time I would hear this in Iran, I would get very sick hearing it.
A few days ago they brought a young war veteran who was disabled in 80% of his body in my cell. He had been put in solitary confinement with his horrific condition. And this had made him very mad and he kept saying “why did they do this to me? I gave my whole life for their sake. See what they have done to me!!!” And when he would get very mad he would say “I will take my revenge!”
I spoke to this young man until 4 in the morning. I spent time with him and spoke to him to forgive. When we don’t forgive, we drink the poison ourselves and then wait for the other person to die. And we take the knife that has hurt us and we stab ourselves with it again! And this is the will of the evil one who wants to destroy us.
But when we forgive, we pour out the poison of the enemy and of the devil and we don’t let the poison stay in us and we don’t let the poison make us into poisonous snakes! So that we don’t become like the person we despised and who persecuted and tortured us.
Maybe you ask, what is the secret of being so happy in such a hard situation?
Forgiveness and a change of attitude. When we forgive, we become free and we become messengers of peace and reconciliation and goodness. And whoever stings us, we can take into our embrace and love them. And in this dark and evil time, we can live full of love and full of peace and full of joy and shine like the stars! Glory be to His Name.
I forgave the prison doctor who did not listen to me and did not give me the medication that I needed. I forgave the interrogator who beat me. Every day when I would see the interrogator and for the last time when I saw him, I forgave him. I smiled at him and with respect shook his hand and I said my goodbye. The minute I forgave them and loved them, that second I was filled with unspeakable joy. I saw in the eyes of the interrogator that he had come to respect me and as he was leaving, he could not look behind him. Love is as strong as death.
We have to get rid of the poison in our body because if we don’t, we will die. We have to get rid of both poisons; first the poison of the snake that bit us and also the poison in us that was created by that bite. We can get rid of the first poison by forgiveness and we can get rid of the second poison by humility, by dying to ourselves, and allowing the band-aid of love and goodness to replace the empty place of the wound. So that we are not a tool of darkness and revenge, but that we can be light and love and a vessel of forgiveness and we can be transformed in the process.
Surely you have someone in your family, city, work or environment that have become like poisonous snake who have bitten you and tried to make you poisonous. So, forgive them and use the antidote of love and be Victorious!
One of the chances of forgiveness came when 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. It really broke my heart. The nurse would also come to take care of us and provide us with treatment, but she said in front of others “in our religion we are not supposed to touch you, you are unclean. Baha’i (religion) and Christians are unclean!” 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.
I could not fall sleep one night due to the pain when all of a sudden I could hear the sound of dirty sewer rats with their loud noises and screeches. It was around 4 in the morning. It sounded like laughter in a way.
Even though many would call me unclean and filthy and would not even want to pass by me and they had abandoned me and they were disgusted to touch me because they were afraid that they would also become unclean, but I knew that in the eyes of Jesus Christ, and in the eyes of my brothers and sisters, I am like the sewer rat, beautiful and loveable — not disgusting and unclean — and like the rats I can scream with joy within those prison walls and worship my Lord in joy and strength.
The Joy of the Lord is my strength. Amen.
Erin Roach is assistant editor of Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).