Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, began his remarks to the United Nations General Assembly this week both acknowledging the world’s “fear of deadly confrontation of religious, ethnic and national identities” and urging “the hope of preference of dialogue over conflict, and moderation over extremism.”
He reiterated the “need to promote and reinforce tolerance in light of the religious teachings and appropriate cultural and political approaches.”
The talk of moderation and religious tolerance from Iran’s new president is a welcome reprieve from the Ahmadinejad years with his calls for death to America and the annihilation of the Jewish people. Yet, talk with no action does nothing to change the reality of Iran’s continued repression of religious minorities.
Today, September 26, 2013, marks the one-year anniversary of the Iranian regime’s illegal imprisonment of an American, a loving father, a caring husband, a devoted pastor because of his religious beliefs.
American Pastor Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-born U.S. citizen, embarked on a mission to Iran last year, a mission sanctioned by the Iranian government to build a nonsectarian orphanage for children in need.
Since his arrest and sentence of eight years, Pastor Saeed has been forced to endure torment, beatings, mental anguish, and even solitary confinement in Evin Prison – one of Iran’s harshest prisons – all because of his chosen faith, because he is a Christian.
In the pages of the Washington Post, President Rouhani, just a few days ago, spoke of “prudence and hope” and “constructive interaction.”
Yet, how can we be expected to believe this new “moderate” leader of Iran, as one of our own, a U.S. citizen, who has done nothing wrong, continues to suffer in an Iranian prison merely because of his religious beliefs. Rouhani talks about religious “tolerance” yet his nation imprisons those whose religion differs from Islam. He talks about “constructive interaction” with America and other foreign nations when Iran continues to hold an American because of his beliefs.
President Rouhani is at a crossroads. He has a clear opportunity to make a dramatic shift in the way his nation is viewed internationally. But unless he takes the most basic steps to protect the most basic of human rights – the right to freely follow one’s own religious belief – his words are utterly useless. It is worth noting that while he is here in America, he is completely free to practice his religion, yet his nation imprisons and torments those who wish to do the same.
Today, thousands of people here in the U.S. and in at least 15 other nations around the globe are gathering to pray for Pastor Saeed and religious freedom in Iran and worldwide. Over 100 prayer vigils, from Pastor Saeed’s hometown in Boise, Idaho to the White House in Washington, DC are scheduled today. We, along with Members of Congress and even the U.S. State Department, which is sending a representative, will gather to pray in front of the White House, as thousands more gather in cities across the globe.
At the same time, Secretary of State John Kerry will be engaging in a historic meeting with Iran’s foreign minister. Pastor Saeed and religious persecution in Iran must be a starting point of this important dialogue.
The simple fact is that we cannot trust a nation’s promises while it imprisons one of our own for his religious beliefs – a move that violates international and Iranian law.
As we gather today to remember and pray for Pastor Saeed and for all those persecuted for their faith, we must renew our call on Iran to respect religious liberty and free Pastor Saeed and all those wrongly imprisoned for their faith.
Pastor Saeed recently wrote a letter to Iran’s president asking for his freedom, and Pastor Saeed’s wife was able to directly hand-deliver it to President Rouhani’s delegation in New York this week. Billy Graham, too, wrote a letter to President Rouhani this week urging him to release Pastor Saeed. In that vein, we have set up a new website BeHeardProject.com providing a way for any and everyone to write to President Rouhani on Pastor Saeed’s behalf. We have already reached our goal of 104,000 letters – 2,000 for every week of his wrongful imprisonment. We will be delivering them over the next weeks and months to the president of Iran himself.
The ball is in President Rouhani’s court. If he is to be believed that there is a new way forward for his nation, he must act.
He must release Pastor Saeed and usher in a new age of religious tolerance, in his own words, “moderation over extremism.” Actions speak louder than words.