American evangelical pastor Saeed Abedini is among the four Americans Iran who were released on Saturday, according to U.S. and Iranian officials. For more than three years, evangelical activists have pressed President Obama to push for his release, arguing that it should be part of a larger nuclear deal.
Abedini, 35, of Boise, Idaho, is a convert from Islam to Christianity and pastor who had been imprisoned since 2012 for organizing home churches. His case was the most high-profile religious persecution for Christians in recent years, regularly mentioned by evangelical pastors in pulpits across the country.
His case put a face on the issue of persecution, especially in the Middle East, for Christians across the globe, and his release comes on “religious freedom day” in the U.S.
His wife, Naghmeh Abedini, who grew up in Boise and lives there with the couple’s two children, Rebekka, 9, and Jacob, 7, told the Washington Post on Saturday that she woke her two children up early at 7:30 a.m. to tell them of the news that their father had been released.
“They were shocked,” she said. “You can probably hear them now, jumping up and down, asking ‘When are we going to see him?’ It’s been a time of rejoicing.”
Naghmeh Abedini has been a high-profile advocate for her husband, posting updates on social media regularly and speaking regularly at Christian conferences across the country.
Saeed Abedini had established small house churches in Iran, and he was convicted in 2013 of threatening Iran’s national security. Born and raised in Iran, Abedini became a U.S. citizen in 2010. In July 2012, he visited the country of Georgia, and when he tried to enter Iran to see his parents, his passport was taken and he was put under house arrest, then later imprisoned in September, his wife said.
In November, Naghmeh Abedini began to back away from her high-profile role in the campaign, telling supporters by email that her husband had been abusive to her and she can “no longer live a lie.” Christianity Today published two emails Naghmeh Abedini sent to supporters about her troubled marriage, which began in 2004.
She confirmed that she had experienced “physical, emotional, psychological, and sexual abuse through her husband’s addiction to pornography.” She wrote at the time, “The abuse started early in their marriage and has worsened during Saeed’s imprisonment,” which she confirmed on Saturday. The two had been speaking by phone and through Skype, but she said she has not spoken with him since October.
She said the timing of those emails, which were leaked to media, was unfortunate.
“When he gets home, we can address the serious issues that have happened and continued,” she said.
She said her husband will undergo a medical examination and they can assess his physical and emotional state. She said he had been beaten and interrogated when he was first imprisoned and suffered internal bleeding, but she does not know his current physical condition. Abedini said that once they leave Iranian soil, they will discuss if she will fly and meet him somewhere or if they will meet when he returns to the U.S.
Abedini, who attends the nondenominational Calvary Chapel in Boise, said it’s unclear whether her husband will continue to be a pastor, though it’s always been “his heart.”
“I think he would have to deal with a lot of issues,” she said. “There will need to be a time of healing for him and his family.”
Details of her abuse will eventually have to be addressed within the evangelical community, where she has been a prominent spokesperson for international religious freedom, said Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
“I dont think today is the day to address that,” he said. “I was stunned and surprised by Naghmeh’s statement. I did not know any of that. It was and is very troubling.”
Saeed Abedini’s release was part of the nuclear deal between Tehran and six world powers in which Iran agreed to an exchange for at least six people imprisoned or charged in the U.S.
“I don’t generally believe in prisoner exchanges,” said Moore, who noted that he also opposes the nuclear deal. “That said, one can oppose of a plan and still rejoice in the release of prisoners of conscience.”
Naghmeh Abedini said she has grown interested in religious persecution, not just of Christians but Sunni Muslims, Baha’is and others under threat in the Middle East.
“As a Christian, I believe God gives freedom, including to be an atheist,” she said. “My husband has opened my eyes to the plight of people of different beliefs.”
Naghmeh Abedini was born in Iran and moved to the U.S. with her parents when she was 9 and became a citizen when they did. She was working in project management for a manufacturing company when her husband was put in prison but left her job so she could travel and speak on her husband’s behalf.
She said her faith has grown stronger since her husband was put in prison.
“We’ve all learned to have peace no matter what came our way in the midst of ups and downs,” she said. “We’ve trusted God and his timing, and today was the timing.”
In October, she wrote an op-ed letter to President Obama for The Washington Post in which she described the agony her family has faced, and said she had hoped that the nuclear deal would mean prisoners like her husband would be freed.
She said on Saturday that initial meetings with the U.S. State Department about her husband were very difficult, describing officials as “stand-off-ish” since they had issued travel warnings to U.S. citizens about Iran. She said she began to have more hope after Secretary of State John Kerry urged her husband’s release in 2013.
Abedini has been the most famous imprisoned pastor in the world for the last several years, said Johnnie Moore, an evangelical activist for Middle Eastern Christians and former Liberty University campus pastor. (He is not related to Russell Moore).
“It was symbolic for people like Saeed who for their faith are captured and held indefinitely,” he said.
Johnnie Moore criticized the U.S. government’s deal.
“Iran is driving a hard bargain with the United States, and I think the United States has given too much,” he said. “If we allow exchanges like this, it incentivizes more kidnapping of people.”
Jordan Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice, a religious freedom organization that has worked with the family, said that this was a clear window for Abedini’s release.
“We dealt with the reality that this administration decided to sit down with the Iran and do a deal,” Sekulow said. “At the beginning, there wasn’t this kind of dialogue. I don’t think we’re at a point where we can pass judgment on the details.”
Many evangelical leaders have pressed the Obama administration for Abedini’s release. At the late South African leader Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in 2013 at the Washington National Cathedral, the Rev. Rob Schenck said he begged Kerry to not forget Saeed Abedini.
“He put his hand over his heart and said, ‘Reverend, I promise I will do everything possible to see that this man is free. I promise you I will not forget,'” Schenck said. “His wife nudged him as if to say, ‘You better not forget.'”
Schenck said that Christians should be thankful that whatever the circumstances he will be reunited with his family. “Religious conservatives who tend to be critical of the Obama administration really need to give credit where credit is due,” he said.
Others freed on Saturday included Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, Amir Hekmati, 32, of Flint, Mich., and Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari.
Religious freedom overseas has been a large part of the 2016 presidential campaign with GOP candidates urging the need for protection of Christians in places like the Middle East.
On Friday, President Obama issued a proclamation for “religious freedom day,” stating “All people deserve the fundamental dignity of practicing their faith free from fear, intimidation, and violence.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article put the incorrect month of Abedini’s imprisonment. He was detained in July and put in prison in September.