TEHRAN, Iran — Iranian authorities are threatening to extend the prison sentence of jailed U.S. citizen Saeed Abedini because he leads people to faith in Christ everywhere he is detained said Abedini's wife Naghmeh.
"I don't see him [witnessing] as an act of defiance," Naghmeh Abedini said. "Knowing Saeed's heart as a pastor, he's seeing people in such a dark place ... on death row for murders and rapes, and just seeing people who are in prison whose future is so dark. Knowing Saeed's heart, I know that his heart was to give them the hope that he's found in Christ that no one can take away, even in prison."
Saeed Abedini, a U.S. citizen of Iranian descent, was sentenced in early 2013 to eight years in prison for his involvement in Iran's house church movement. Abedini used to live in Iran and was a leader of house churches before moving to America in 2005. He was arrested almost two years ago while on a trip to build an orphanage in the city of Rasht. Though the Iranian constitution officially recognizes Christianity as a minority religion, Christian converts from Islam have suffered brutal persecution at the hands of Muslim authorities.
Naghmeh Abedini and the couple's two young children live in Idaho. They have not been allowed to speak with Saeed since he was arrested but have communicated through his family in Iran, who are permitted to visit him in prison for 20 minutes weekly.
The American Center for Law and Justice reported May 20 that Saeed had been returned to prison after spending two months in a hospital to receive treatment for injuries inflicted by prison officials. He was severely beaten at the hospital before being returned to prison, ACLJ reported.
Prison guards have told Abedini that they can and will increase his jail sentence unless he stops telling fellow prisoners about Jesus, Naghmeh told BP. She said some former Muslim prisoners who placed their faith in Christ through Saeed's witness have already received extended sentences.
Still, Saeed has said he feels compelled to keep sharing the Gospel.
"Because I want to serve God, I see all of these difficulties as golden opportunities and great doors to serve," he wrote in a letter from prison last year. "There are empty containers who are thirsty for a taste of the Living Water and we can quench their thirst by giving them Jesus Christ."
Shortly after Abedini was sentenced, his wife began receiving calls from women in Iran who said their husbands shared a cell with Saeed and had become strangely calm, happy and joyful. Their husbands told the women it wasn't safe to explain the reason for their transformation during family visits at the prison, but they recommended that their wives call Naghmeh.
"Early on in his imprisonment I got to talk to some of these wives and lead them to Christ because of the change they've seen in their husbands," Naghmeh said. "And I told them, 'I think Saeed has given your husband all he has, and all he has is the hope he has found in Jesus Christ.'"
One prisoner who began following Jesus told his wife, "I don't feel like I'm in a prison anymore. I've been set free," Naghmeh said.
Saeed wants to be in America with his family and gets emotional when he sees pictures of his children's birthday parties, Naghmeh said. But he wants to share Jesus more than he wants to be free.
"He got saved from such a dark [past]," Naghmeh said of her husband, a former Muslim. "At his conversion Jesus saved him in such a radical way that he can't deny Christ and he can't stop sharing his faith. It's in his DNA."
Saeed's legal options in Iran have been exhausted and there will not be any more opportunities to appeal his conviction, Naghmeh said. But she senses that God will intervene supernaturally and bring about Saeed's release.
"When I pray, I do feel like it will be a miracle," she said. "It will be a definite act of God to release him. [Iranian authorities] feel like Saeed has not learned his lesson. He continues to stand on his faith, which they wanted him to reject."
Naghmeh asked U.S. Christians not only to pray for Saeed, but also to send their senators and congressmen brief messages requesting help for him and other persecuted Christians around the world. Senators Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas are among those who have told Naghmeh that such emails spur elected officials to action.
Naghmeh has testified before Congress on her husband's behalf, spoken at the United Nations and asked European nations to press for his release as a condition of trade agreements with Iran. She believes countries like Germany, with whom Iran wants to trade, stand the best chance of securing Saeed's release.
"Money talks more than religion" with Iran, Naghmeh said. "Iran is at a very desperate point. They're not doing very well economically. ... This is the best time to discuss human rights issues in Saeed's case and Christian persecution with them because they want to try to work with the West."
Naghmeh said 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 has become her favorite verse, a "jewel during this time" that reminds her of God's purpose for allowing persecution.
Trials "are great opportunities for us to die to our flesh and see the power of God shine though," she said. "When a room is dark and there is a light in it, automatically people go to it, so we become witnesses for Christ."
Meanwhile another U.S. Christian, Kenneth Bae, remains imprisoned in North Korea. Bae has spent nearly two years in a labor camp and faces a 15-year sentence. He was arrested for "hostile acts" against the North Korean government while leading a tourist group, a business venture that "combined his entrepreneurial spirit with his personal convictions as a Christian," according to freekennow.com.
At the National Prayer Breakfast in February, President Obama called publicly for Iran to release Abedini and for North Korea to release Bae.