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The strange case of the pastor released from Iran and his wife’s abuse allegations

For several years, Naghmeh Abedini worked for her husband Saeed’s release from prison in Iran. (photo courtesy of ACLJ)

Naghmeh Abedini rapidly rose to religious freedom superstardom in Christian circles in recent years.

The Boise, Idaho, resident toured the country relentlessly, advocating for release of her husband, Saeed Abedini, an Iranian American pastor imprisoned in an Iranian jail cell.

Along the way, she became the face of the burgeoning religious freedom movement.

Among her high-profile allies: the American Center for Law and Justice, a prominent Christian legal firm; Republican presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio; and the Rev. Franklin Graham.

President Obama even visited with Naghmeh last year, promising to work for her husband’s release.

Now that her husband has returned to the United States, the mother of two may be facing an even bigger challenge. She’s trying to rebuild her life after suffering from years of what she says was abuse in her marriage to Saeed.

And Naghmeh will likely have to do so without the help of her high-profile friends, some of whom have distanced themselves from her. She also may face of suspicion from many of her former faith-based supporters, domestic abuse experts say.

Allegations of abuse

Naghmeh filed for a legal separation in Boise on Jan. 26, five days after her husband was freed in a prisoner deal that included The Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian.

A legal separation agreement would govern custody of the couple’s children while the Abedinis live apart. Naghmeh also filed for a temporary restraining order to keep her children in Idaho while she and her husband work on their future.

At issue are allegations of physical, emotional and spiritual abuse, which Naghmeh says she endured for most of her married life.

“I want us to go through counseling, which must first deal with the abuse,” she told followers on her Facebook page. “Then we can deal with the changes my husband and I must both make moving forward in the process of healing our marriage.”

Charges of abuse against Saeed date back to at least 2007, according to the Statesman. That year, Saeed was sentenced to a year of probation for misdemeanor domestic assault, along with a suspended sentence of 90 days in jail.

A spokesman for the ACLJ said the Christian legal nonprofit is no longer representing the Abedinis, now that Saeed has been released. The family is no longer working with the DeMoss Group, a prominent Christian public relations firm based in Atlanta, which does media relations for the ACLJ and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

DeMoss handled media relations for the Abedinis when Saeed returned from Iran and stayed at the Cove, a retreat center run by the BGEA.

“Now that Saeed has left the Cove and returned to Boise, we are not in a position to navigate his or Naghmeh’s movements, statements or wishes relative to interviews,” a DeMoss spokesman wrote in an email.

In a statement to the Idaho Statesman, Saeed thanked his wife for advocating on his behalf. He said that his marriage is troubled and that he is not perfect, but he downplayed the allegations of abuse.

“Much of what I have read in Naghmeh’s posts and subsequent media reports is not true,” he said in the statement. “But I believe we should work on our relationship in private and not on social media or other media.”

Naghmeh revealed the troubles in her marriage, which began in 2004, in a pair of emails to supporters in November, which were later made public. She recently apologized for keeping the abuse secret for years.

“I do deeply regret that I hid from the public the abuse that I have lived with for most of our marriage and I ask your forgiveness,” she told supporters on Facebook. “I sincerely had hoped that this horrible situation Saeed has had to go through would bring about the spiritual change needed in both of us to bring healing to our marriage.”

Abuse in a religious homes

As the wife of a pastor, Naghmeh likely was under tremendous pressure to keep quiet about any abuse, says Marie Fortune, founder of the Faith Trust Institute, which trains clergy and faith groups on how to deal with domestic abuse.

Domestic abuse is a taboo subject in most churches, said Fortune.

“The faith community doesn’t necessarily want to talk about domestic abuse because they don’t want people to think that it is happening within their community” she said.

That’s especially true when the abuser is a pastor. People don’t want to believe that a pastor could abuse their spouse. So a pastor’s spouse like Naghmeh often has no one to turn to for help, Fortune said.

Add the high-profile nature of Saeed’s imprisonment in Iran — and Naghmeh’s advocacy for his release — and it’s not surprising she didn’t speak earlier, she said.

“Who is she going to tell?” said Fortune. “Who is going to believe her?”

At least one high-profile supporter of the Abedini family seemed skeptical about Naghmeh’s claims of abuse.

Franklin Graham, who hosted Saeed at a North Carolina retreat after the pastor’s release from prison, said he is trying to help the couple reconcile. In a post on his Facebook page, he seemed unconvinced about some of Naghmeh’s reported claims.

“Other than God, no one knows the details and the truth of what has happened between Saeed and Naghmeh except them,” he wrote. “There’s an old saying that there are at least two sides to every story. I can tell one thing for sure — not everything that has been reported in the media is true.”

Ross Peterson of Midwest Ministry Development, a nonprofit that often works with troubled pastors, said that most denominations take abuse seriously if it is reported.

A pastor accused of abuse would be removed from ministry and referred to a counselor who specialized in this issue. In general, Peterson said, a couple is not sent to marriage counseling in cases of abuse.

“This is for several reasons — to protect the safety of the spouse, to avoid having the abuser manipulate the abused spouse into rationalizing or justifying the abuse, and to make it clear that spousal abuse, unlike most marital problems, is not seen as a situation where each partner is equally responsible,” he said in an email.

Fortune also advised against couple’s therapy for cases of alleged abuse. She said that some pastors will meet with both spouses in cases of abuse. That’s not safe for the victim, she said.

Fortune said that at times, faith can be a roadblock to getting assistance for victims of abuse. Victims are sometimes pressured to forgive their abuser early on in the process — as a kind of shortcut to healing a marriage.

But forgiveness, if given too early, can do more harm than good.

“When we talk about the problem of forgiveness — is what a church expects as the first step of dealing with a case of abuse,” said Fortune. “I always tell people it is the last step — there are a lot of things that need to happen before that step can happen.”

Saeed told the Statesman that he has no plans to take his children out of state. He also said that his family’s struggles are best dealt with in private.

“Our marriage is under great stress and I am hoping and praying for healing and restoration,” he said.

What we know about the prisoners the U.S. and Iran exchanged (Video: Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

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