President Obama’s recent phone conversation with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was not only historic, it was a major step forward in defense of religious liberty against ever-increasing persecution.
A couple of weeks ago we wrote about the plight of a U.S. citizen, Pastor Saeed Abedini, imprisoned in Iran for his Christian faith. Abedini has done nothing wrong. He has not even violated Iranian law, which recognizes Christianity as a minority religion. Yet, he has been imprisoned, beaten, and tormented for his religious beliefs.
September 26th was the one-year mark of his wrongful imprisonment by the Iranian regime – one year separated from his wife and children who are waiting for their father to be returned home to the U.S.
On that day, thousands of people gathered in dozens of cities around the world to pray for Pastor Saeed. We participated in a prayer vigil for Pastor Saeed in front of the White House. Joined by Members of Congress, including Senator Ted Cruz and Representatives Trent Franks and Robert Pittenger, and concerned Americans, we knelt for prayer – exercising our greatest right as Americans – in front of the White House.
The very next day, President Obama spoke with President Rouhani about Pastor Saeed. It was the first time in 35 years that a U.S. President had spoken with the President of Iran.
It was also the first time that President Obama had personally called for Pastor Saeed’s release.
In that short phone call, Pastor Saeed, and thus the issue of religious liberty, was elevated to a top priority for the U.S. with Iran.
President Rouhani must show the world that his nation can respect the religious liberty of its own people if we are to trust that his nation is changing.
President Obama echoed this call. In one phone call, he raised the case of this imprisoned U.S. citizen and the issue of religious liberty in Iran to new diplomatic heights.
All those of us who are fighting to defend religious liberty and human rights globally are grateful.
It is a tremendous step forward, and we are already seeing an impact.
Pastor Saeed, in his short weekly visitation behind glass walls with his Iranian family, said that he had already heard that President Obama had raised his case with the Iranian President. He heard news of it in his jail cell listening to Iranian media.
Not only does Iran’s leadership know that religious liberty is a priority for the U.S. in any diplomatic relations, Iran’s people know. The same people that voted to elect President Rouhani because he claimed to be a moderate now know. They know President Rouhani now has an opportunity to make good on that claim – to show the world and the Iranian people that a new age has begun in Iran.
In just the last few weeks, we have seen renewed efforts by our nation’s leaders to put religious liberty and human rights front and center of future diplomatic talks with Iran and to see that this U.S. citizen is returned to his family in the U.S.
Senator Ted Cruz introduced a resolution calling for Pastor Saeed’s release, Pastor Saeed’s Senator, James Risch (ID), has been continually outspoken, Congressman Pittenger and Senator Lindsey Graham each wrote Congressional letters on Pastor Saeed’s behalf joined by dozens of Members of Congress, Senator Marco Rubio wrote an Op-Ed highlighting Pastor Saeed and the plight of Christians in Iran, and now President Obama has spoken out.
Each of these statements, resolutions, phone calls, and the indispensible behind the scenes work accompanying them sends a clear signal to Iran: Religious liberty is a national priority for the United States.
As Pastor Saeed’s wife, Naghmeh, asked when she testified before Congress earlier this year:
Are we going to stand up as country and protect a citizen whose human right of religious freedom is so clearly violated? Americans are not all Christians; but every American – regardless of their beliefs – wants to be reassured and know that our government will take decisive action to protect us if someone uses force to try to make us abandon or change our beliefs.
That question is being answered in a meaningful and impactful way. We are thankful and encouraged by President Obama’s willingness to speak out and make religious liberty a top priority, and we urge him to continue to do so. It could be a game changer, not just for Pastor Saeed but for thousands more persecuted like him.
Pastor Saeed was once again able to see his Iranian family this week. He is ready to come home, anxious to see his wife and children once again.
Iran is on notice. The world is watching. Iran must release this imprisoned American Pastor.
Jordan Sekulow is executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ). Matthew Clark is an attorney at the ACLJ. Follow them on Twitter: @JordanSekulow and @_MatthewClark.