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How Franklin Graham pushed a domestic abuse victim to return to her husband

He asked whether she was cheating on her husband. “It was a good question to ask,” Graham said. “I would’ve asked it again.”

Naghmeh Panahi is pictured outside of her house in Boise. (Kyle Green for The Washington Post)
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BOISE — When Naghmeh Panahi’s Christian-pastor husband was imprisoned in Iran, she found one of her biggest advocates in a powerful evangelical leader, the Rev. Franklin Graham.

Graham “took me under his wing,” Panahi said, and the two grew close between 2013 and 2015, texting and speaking by phone several times a month. Graham sent 71 emails to Panahi from his private Gmail account, according to a review by The Post. He boosted her story with his massive online following, sent private planes to whisk her to speaking engagements, bankrolled a trip to Disneyland for her two children and took her family out for a steak dinner in Boise. He helped turn her bright-yellow shirts, her husband’s favorite color, into a symbol for evangelicals who wanted to fight for religious freedom abroad.

But the unlikely friendship between Graham and an Iranian immigrant came to an abrupt halt — and since last fall, on social media and at a handful of churches and conferences across the country, Panahi has been more widely sharing why. Her then-imprisoned husband, Saeed Abedini, had abused her physically and emotionally for most of their 13-year marriage, she said, and when Graham first heard, he called her in November 2015.

“Naghmeh, are you cheating on him?” he asked. Panahi replied strongly that she was not.

Graham, son of the evangelical titan Billy Graham, confirmed in a phone interview with The Post that he asked the question, saying he suspected an affair because Panahi had been advocating so fervently for her husband’s release only to “go cold on him.”

“It was a good question to ask,” Graham said, “and I would have asked it again.”

Graham spoke with The Post during a fall 2020 interview, when he was in Washington for a march on the Mall. Graham declined to comment further on his phone call with Panahi in a recent request for an interview.

In the weeks that followed that phone call, Panahi said, Graham kept pushing her to stop talking about the abuse and reunite with Abedini, whom a family court judge later called “a habitual perpetrator of domestic violence.” (In a 2020 interview, Abedini denied all abuse allegations. He did not respond to a recent request for comment.)

In May, at a conference on abuse in churches, Panahi shared her story about how Graham had treated her. Two days later, the Southern Baptist Convention released the results of a third-party investigation into a years-long coverup of sexual abuse. The shocking report reignited outrage over the mishandling of abuse claims by evangelical leaders that included the 2018 backlash to Southern Baptist leader Paige Patterson’s attempt to persuade an abused woman to go back to her husband, fueling a #ChurchToo movement. (Patterson did not respond to a recent request for comment.)

Panahi’s experience with Graham offers another rare glimpse into how a towering figure in American religious life reacted to an abuse claim.

“Many women in America, and some men, are not in prison in Iran, but they’re in prison in the four walls of their own home,” Panahi said in an interview. “They’re not being believed by the church.”

‘The man is the head of family’

Panahi and Abedini, who are both naturalized U.S. citizens, had met in a Pentecostal Assemblies of God church on her trip to Iran to visit relatives in 2002, marrying two years later and settling in Tehran. Soon after, Abedini began kicking and shoving her, Panahi said. In 2005, she said, while in Dubai, he beat her severely after she made a mess searching through a suitcase.

Pregnant with their first child at the time, she didn’t report the incidents in Iran and Dubai to the police because she feared the laws wouldn’t protect her there and she didn’t want to jeopardize Abedini’s U.S. visa, she said.

The couple moved to the United States in 2006 and settled in Boise. Panahi, now 45, was the primary breadwinner, working for her father’s technology company. Abedini worked for a few months for Panahi’s father and was employed by their church to do missions work but did not retain a formal job.

Panahi was pregnant again in 2007 when Abedini grabbed her by the neck, according to police records. Abedini pleaded guilty to domestic battery, court records show, and was ordered to complete anger management sessions as part of his sentence. But two years later, as a judge would hear, Abedini vandalized his mother-in-law’s car; in 2010, he allegedly broke his father-in-law’s nose.

In all, The Post reviewed over 100 pages of court and police documents and conducted dozens of interviews with those most involved in the couple’s lives after Abedini was released from prison to corroborate Panahi’s allegations of abuse.

Abedini told The Post in 2020 he hit Panahi in self-defense in Dubai. Regarding the other abuse allegations, he said Panahi lied to draw attention to herself and set up her own ministry, which goes against his religious beliefs. “The Bible says, the man is the head of family,” he said. “I am not the woman in the family.”

Abedini continued in ministry and, shortly before he became a U.S. citizen, decided to go back to Iran to help set up an orphanage. In 2012, he was taken into custody by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and sentenced to eight years in prison for allegedly compromising Iran’s national security by leading illegal house churches.

Panahi said she threw herself into advocacy for her husband’s release despite his alleged abuse because of her evangelical commitment to religious freedom. Her beliefs also made it difficult at the time, she said, for her to see her marital experience as abuse.

“I would pray, ‘God, do you want me to submit [to my husband] more?’” Panahi said. “Jesus rescued me and showed me that’s not what he wants.”

A father figure

Panahi began traveling to speak from pulpits, at conferences and at congressional hearings to bring attention to her husband’s case. She became a regular on Fox News and, in 2013, called Graham’s office because of his national and international connections.

Graham responded in an email right away that he would help, and he did, both in public and in private: standing with Panahi at a White House vigil, writing to then-President Barack Obama on her behalf and, as an amateur pilot, personally flying her from New York City to speak to his ministry in Charlotte.

“You are truly my spiritual father, a friend and a mentor,” Panahi emailed Graham on Jan. 22, 2014. “You are His servant and I trust your words more than my thoughts and my emotions.”

In October 2015, she said, Graham called her from Russia to say he was asking President Vladimir Putin to press Iran for Abedini’s release. (Graham declined to say which politicians he reached out to on her behalf.)

Privately, Panahi hoped her husband would repent for his abuse. Instead, while still in prison, he got hold of a smuggled cellphone and in the fall of 2014 began verbally abusing her over Skype, she said. Jay Sekulow, then her and Abedini’s attorney and later President Donald Trump’s, told Panahi not to tell anyone, including Graham, that she was talking with Abedini because it could imperil his release, she said. In an interview, Sekulow confirmed his guidance that she tell no one about her communication with Abedini. Later, Graham told Panahi he felt deceived by the omission.

By October 2015, Panahi stopped speaking to Abedini, she said, as she debated dropping a deal to write a memoir about her family’s ordeal.

The next month, during a visit to speak at a church in North Carolina, she confided in a pastor about her husband’s behavior, which had begun to gnaw at her. The pastor, who had educational training in psychology, told her she was being abused. On the flight home, Panahi wrote an email about her abuse to a few hundred supporters who were helping organize Abedini’s release efforts.

After she emailed her followers about her abuse, Sekulow recommended she explain her allegations of abuse by suggesting she was under stress and on medication, she said. Sekulow denied having any conversations with Panahi about her husband’s abuse.

She disappeared from public life, paying her publisher nearly $80,000 to end her book deal.

Failed reunions

Abedini, along with Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian and four other Americans, was released in a prisoner exchange in January 2016. He was given a hero’s welcome, meeting with Republican leaders Panahi had worked with, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). Panahi said Cruz never acknowledged her abuse allegations; a Cruz spokesman said his office was not “made aware of the details of Naghmeh’s marriage” before his advocacy.

Emails from Graham, meanwhile, show the allegations had not diminished his view of Abedini as “a hero” who “suffered greatly for his faith.”

“I’m not saying that Saeed is not guilty of abuse,” Graham wrote to Panahi on Jan. 23, 2016, the week after Abedini’s release. “I am sure he is guilty of much more. The problem is you exposed him publicly to the whole world and embarrassed him. You did this while he was still in prison, a place where he could not defend himself or to speak about these issues.”

He insisted the couple reunite at his retreat center outside Asheville, N.C. Panahi initially agreed, until she spoke with Graham’s sister, the prominent Bible teacher Anne Graham Lotz who said in 2020 she believed Panahi that she was being abused.

“I believe it was not a marriage-counseling situation, it’s not like you know ‘he leaves the top off the toothpaste,’” Lotz recounted. “I would not want them back together where he could hurt her or the children.” Lotz declined to comment on her brother’s response.

Within a week of the failed reunion, Panahi said, Graham flew Abedini to Boise on a private jet, a trip she learned about only that day when a reporter called her. She rushed to a courthouse and was granted a protection order. When Abedini arrived, she and her mother met him with the couple’s two children, who had not seen their father in three years.

Then she handed over a copy of the order. Abedini left without speaking to her.

Graham told The Post his goal was to “reconcile the differences in their marriage” and that he didn’t pressure her. He called Panahi “a dishonest woman” and “disappointing.”

Panahi said Graham tried to help Abedini get back on his feet, bringing him to Alaska, where Graham runs a ministry with military families called “Operation Heal Our Patriots.” Panahi, who heard from military wives after she shared her own story, expressed concern that he would similarly tell those wives to go back to abusive husbands.

That May after a protection order had expired, Panahi said, during a visit with the children, Abedini grabbed their 8-year-old son by the neck when the boy didn’t clean up a water spill; Panahi took her son to a hospital, where he was put in a neck brace. A district court judge in Boise granted an emergency protection order and ordered a child-protection investigation, according to a transcript of the couple’s divorce proceedings. The findings of that investigation are not public because it involved a minor.

Three months later, Panahi said, she met with Graham and her husband in a hotel conference room in downtown Boise, to show she was trying to make the marriage work, even though Abedini had not met with an abuse counselor as she had requested.

Graham, who told The Post in 2020 that he knew Panahi was recording their meeting, began by noting the “tens of thousands” of dollars his ministries Samaritan’s Purse and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association had given Panahi while Abedini was in prison. (She said Graham gave her about $30,000 in honorariums for speaking engagements.)

According to the recording, Graham said the marriage could “be fixed easily,” and he seemed to dismiss the severity of her abuse. “I’m not here to defend him calling you bad names, yelling at you, whatever,” he said.

“Beating me,” Panahi interjected.

Graham told her that abuse is a “gray area,” that an abusive husband was someone who “comes home and he takes a six-pack of beer and he jumps off the chair because the kids are making noise and beats his wife and beats the kids and that’s something that goes on almost every day.”

And that was not her situation, Graham told her, because he felt an abusive husband was someone who “stomped” on his wife every night.

“I was beaten,” she replied.

Graham again urged her to speak with Abedini, complaining that they hadn’t met for lunch or dinner. But he dismissed the idea of abuse counselors. “You could get some godless psychiatrist,” he said.

That was the last time Panahi and Graham spoke.

‘Don’t go through the church’

Since their friendship ended, Graham has continued to hold evangelistic gatherings around the globe, leading his two major evangelical ministries and merging his message of the Christian gospel with conservative political viewpoints. During a recent evangelistic trip to Brazil, Graham wrote to The Post that Panahi and Abedini’s story was “tragic” but declined to comment on his counsel to the couple.

Abedini filed for divorce in October 2016, citing irreconcilable differences, and a judge eventually granted Panahi full custody. In 2017, Abedini pleaded guilty to violating a protection order taken out by Panahi. In 2018, he was arrested for violating a no-contact order, according to police records.

Abedini, who Panahi said is now living in the Middle East, declined to provide any details about his current life, saying he still feared the Iranian government could track him down.

Panahi lives with her mother and two children in Boise, where she attends Calvary Boise, part of a larger association of charismatic evangelical churches. Since she began telling her story, she said, hundreds of missionary, military and pastor wives have shared with her their own accounts of abuse.

“Back then, I probably would’ve said work it out in the church,” Panahi said. “Now I would say get somewhere safe. Write everything down and gather evidence. Don’t go through the church. Go to authorities.”

Boz Tchividjian — a grandson of the Rev. Billy Graham, a nephew of Franklin Graham and a lawyer who represents sex abuse survivors — said there is a pattern in parts of conservative evangelicalism that emphasizes the authority of men and fosters skepticism among leaders toward abuse allegations.

“He had a loud megaphone, he spun a particular narrative,” Tchividjian said of his uncle. “Her voice is comparatively like a whisper. That adds to the trauma that someone like her and many other women struggle with.”

Graham, who primarily attends a Christian and Missionary Alliance church but still sometimes goes to a Southern Baptist one, and whose father was a longtime member of the influential First Baptist Church of Dallas, said he was “greatly concerned” by the SBC’s abuse report. “Our hearts go out to those who have suffered abuse. We must protect and care for everyone in our churches, especially women and children,” he wrote in an email.

Panahi, in turning to Graham and being turned back toward Abedini, said she did not feel protected.

“God cares about the one who’s being oppressed,” she said. “He didn’t come to save the institution of marriage.”

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