Last Friday during a press briefing, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney read a statement of “deep concern” over the detainment of U.S. pastor Saeed Abedini in Iran. The White House joined the State Department condemning Iran for its “continued violation of the universal right of freedom of religion.”
The question about Abedini was the last one of the 45 minute briefing, and Carney took only a couple of minutes to answer it, so this certainly wasn’t at the top of the press’s agenda for the day. Still, for Christians concerned about the sparse media coverage of religious persecution, it was a hopeful sign.
The universal right of freedom of religion. We know our country believes in it, but it sure is nice to hear it officially from the White House. And considering the amount of support the current administration gives to so-called “rights” that aren’t explicitly in the U.S. constitution (e.g. abortion and universal health care), Jay Carney invoking a freedom that’s actually in the Bill of Rights was a refreshing throwback to a time when our nation seemed much less divided than it is now.
It’s much easier to condemn human rights violations when it’s our enemies who are doing the violating, but we’ve not been as good at calling out our allies in the Middle East who regularly do the same thing. In Saudi Arabia and Egypt, for example, Muslims who convert to Christianity face harsh prison sentences, and in some cases, death. Earlier this month, an Egyptian woman and her seven children were sentenced to 15 years in prison for converting to Christianity. But we don’t hear much about this from our government or from the news media. And this virtual silence on the issue didn’t start during the Obama administration—it goes back at least to the George H.W. Bush administration and before.
The Saeed Abedini case is more significant than most because Abedini is an American citizen. He converted to Christianity from Islam 13 years ago in Iran, and he and his wife became active in the underground house church movement there. They moved to the U.S. in 2005 to escape persecution, but Abedini returned to Iran in 2009 to visit family and was arrested. He was released when he agreed to end his involvement with the house church movement. Abedini became a U.S. citizen in 2010 and last year he returned to Iran to visit his family and to help build an orphanage. He was arrested in September and has been incarcerated in the notorious Evin Prison since then. On Sunday he was sentenced to eight years in prison for allegedly threatening Iran’s national security through his involvement with the house church movement.
With this case, President Obama has a huge opportunity to build trust with some of the Christians who didn’t support his reelection bid in November. It’s no secret that the president is viewed with suspicion by many in the community of faith—his views on abortion are at odds with the views of most evangelicals, and the announcement last year of his support for same-sex marriage intensified the distrust. It also arguably dampened the enthusiasm of some of the president’s own Christian base. Add to that the recent conflicts between the administration and religious organizations over health care, and it becomes clear that President Obama could stand to improve his image within the Christian community.
But what could the White House do to go beyond the statement of concern we heard about last Friday? Well, the United States doesn’t have formal diplomatic relations with Iran, but the president could use his bully pulpit and the worldwide influence of the United States government to put pressure on the Iranian government to release Pastor Abedini. But this is even bigger than Abedini. He's the current face of religious persecution, but people are harassed for their faith every day in many parts the world. A few speeches from prominent American politicians would help shine a much-needed spotlight on the issue of religious freedom and persecution. President Obama stands to gain a lot with very little risk. Frankly I can’t understand why he’s not running with this issue.
I suspect that if Saeed Abedini were a mainline pastor trying to establish a family planning clinic in Iran (rather than an independent evangelical building an orphanage) his current situation would be getting a lot more press coverage. But whether or not that’s the case, I’m grateful for the fact that we’ve heard as much about him as we have. Many others around the world are in similar situations and we’ve never even heard their names.
Please remember this courageous pastor and his family in your prayers.