TEHRAN, Iran Pastor Saeed Abedini, a U.S. citizen of Iranian descent, has released a letter from within Iran's brutal Evin prison in Tehran, demonstrating that his faith remains strong despite abusive tactics from Iranian officials aimed at getting him to renounce Christ.
"They are trying to put me under such horrific pressures (that are sometimes unbearable) so that they can show me that my faith is empty and not real," Saeed wrote.
"And after all of these pressures, after all of the nails they have pressed against my hands and feet, they are only waiting for one thing ... for me to deny Christ. But they will never get this from me," he wrote in the letter that was translated into English.
The text of the letter was circulated Feb. 22 by the American Center for Law and Justice, which has been advocating for the pastor's release. He was sentenced in January to eight years in prison for starting a house church network a decade ago.
"This new letter from Pastor Saeed could not be more clear or direct he continues to face life-threatening abuse simply because of his religious beliefs," Jordan Sekulow, ACLJ's executive director, said. "The letter also underscores the need to move quickly."
Abedini reported that the conditions inside the prison are so difficult that his eyes are blurry and he lacks strength to walk.
"Various (bullying) groups, the psychological warfare, a year of not seeing my family, physical violence, actions committed to humiliate me, insults, being mocked, being confronted with extremists in the prison who create another prison within the prison walls, and the death threats ...," Abedini wrote.
As a Christian pastor, he believes he is carefully watched and is expected to smile despite the harsh treatment.
"But, of course, I can clearly see what is going on and because I want to serve God, I see all of these difficulties as golden opportunities and great doors to serve," Abedini wrote. "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."
The imprisoned pastor went on to encourage fellow Christians, reminiscent of letters from the Apostle Paul.
"Maybe you are also in such a situation, so pray and seek God that He would use you and direct you in the pressures and difficulties of your lives," Abedini, 32, wrote.
Naghmeh Abedini, the pastor's wife, is living in the United States with the couple's two young children and has kept close contact with the ACLJ. Upon receiving the letter, she told the advocacy organization it is heart wrenching to know her husband is still being tortured in Iran, where he has been imprisoned since September.
"Now our worst fears have been confirmed," she said. "He continues to face life-threatening abuse at the hands of the Iranian officials simply because of his faith in Jesus. These are the dreadful conditions he will continue to face as he serves his lengthy prison sentence in Iran."
Naghmeh Abedini said her husband "will never recant his faith in Jesus," but she is greatly concerned about his health and well-being.
"His situation is dire and with the continued abuse and death threats, we are not sure how long Saeed will survive these horrendous conditions in prison," she wrote. "The most important thing we can do is pray, continue to raise awareness of his case and continue to work for his freedom."
More than 280,000 people had signed a petition Feb. 22 at SaveSaeed.org, a website aimed at rallying international voices to secure his release.
"It is rare that he is able to get a letter like this to the public," Sekulow said of the pastor. "He has no voice. Each of us must be his voice. Sign the petition for his freedom at SaveSaeed.org."
More than 80 members of the U.S. Congress signed a Feb. 12 letter urging Secretary of State John Kerry to "exhaust every possible option to secure Mr. Abedini's immediate release."
The congressional letter states, "Every American citizen traveling or living abroad should have the assurance that the U.S. government will come vigorously to his or her defense if they are unjustly detained or imprisoned."
ACLJ filed a document the week of Feb. 10 with the U.N. Human Rights Council calling on Iran to immediately release Abedini, citing Iran's violations of international law and human rights abuses.
Writing for National Review Online in January, Paul Marshall, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom, said Abedini's case is "just one facet of Iran's increasing religious repression." He reported that at least 20 other Christians are currently detained in Iran because of their faith.
Pastor Farshid Fathi has been held in Evin prison since 2010, Marshall said, and pastor Behnam Irani, imprisoned since 2011, is being denied medical treatment for his serious health problems. Pastor Vruir Avanessian, Marshall said, was arrested in December, 2012 during a raid on a house church.
Iran has increased its persecution of Baha'is recently too, Marshall said.
"The fact that Iran, despite current pressures, attacks peaceful and usually apolitical minorities shows that religious ideology remains a major determinant of its actions," Marshall wrote. "It also shows that the regime is weak. Minorities are growing because many Muslims reject their rulers' version of Islam."
Iran is susceptible to international pressure, Marshall noted, pointing to the recent case of pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, who faced execution but was released after international pressure mounted.
"Even apart from the fact that Saeed is an American citizen, the [Obama] administration should realize that religious freedom can be a key element in changing Iran, and we should press it to do so," Marshall wrote.