From inside an Iranian prison comes the message of forgiveness

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WASHINGTON — Pastor Saeed Abedini, a U.S. citizen of Iranian descent imprisoned in Tehran, tells of the torture he has endured for his faith as well as the joy that comes with forgiving his perpetrators in a letter to his family released by the American Center for Law and Justice March 22.

The letter comes one day after a U.S. State Department official finally mentioned Abedini's case before a global audience and called for his release.

Abedini's ordeal is happening during a period of numerous arrests of Iranian Christians, according to Morning Star News. The increase in arrests, the news service said, is likely related to the upcoming presidential elections.

Christians in Iran, according to World Watch Monitor, are routinely arrested and interrogated because Iranian authorities view Christianity as a deviant anti-government movement and Christians as pawns of the West.

In the letter written on scraps of newsprint, a badly beaten Abedini said he is able to endure because the joy of the Lord is his strength and he has learned to forgive those who persecute him.

"I forgave the prison doctor who did not listen to me and did not give me the medication that I needed. I forgave the interrogator who beat me," Abedini wrote. "... The minute I forgave them and loved them, that second I was filled with unspeakable joy. ... Love is as strong as death."

He described an incident when a prison guard learned he was a Christian pastor and replied, "You are unclean!"

"It really broke my heart," the pastor wrote perhaps weeks ago. "The nurse also would come to take care of us and provide us with treatment, but she said in front of others 'in our religion we are not supposed to touch you, you are unclean.'"

The doctor, Abedini said, had instructed that he not receive the pain medication that other prisoners received because he was considered unclean.

When Abedini, who frequently is blindfolded, caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror of an elevator, he did not recognize himself.

"My hair was shaven, under my eyes were swollen three times what they should have been, my face was swollen, and my beard had grown," he wrote.

In the letter the pastor expressed deep concern for his wife Naghmeh, who is waiting for him with their two young children in the United States, and for his parents in Iran who have tried tirelessly to free him from prison.

Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice, reported March 22 that Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe of the U.S. State Department on Thursday called for Abedini's release before the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland.

Abedini's "continuing harsh treatment at the hands of Iranian authorities" exemplifies the worsening plight of religious minorities in Iran, Donahoe said.

"We repeat our call for the government of Iran to release Mr. Abedini and others who are unjustly imprisoned and to cease immediately its persecution of all religious minority communities," she added. "The United States also repeats its call for the government of Iran to provide without delay the urgent medical attention Mr. Abedini needs."

ACLJ reported March 18 that Abedini had been examined for internal bleeding sustained from the repeated beatings he has endured in Iran's infamously brutal Evin prison. He was promised medical attention at a private hospital outside the prison, but there was no word on when or if this would actually occur.

Abedini also was granted recently an extended two-hour visit with his Iranian family, which Sekulow took as a sign that international pressure is working.

"Now is the time to step up the pressure," Sekulow wrote. "We know Iran is listening."

Nearly 550,000 people have signed a petition at SaveSaeed.org calling for Abedini's release, and several U.S. congressmen are advocating on his behalf. ACLJ continues to call for Secretary of State John Kerry to make a public, proactive statement calling on Iran to release Abedini without delay.

Abedini has become a widely known face of religious persecution in Iran, but as Morning Star News said, there are many others. Five Christian converts arrested last year in Iran went on trial March 10 and were given enormous bail terms.

Outlandish bail terms often are used as a tool to create economic hardship for converts and their families and churches, a representative of Christian Solidarity Worldwide said.

Police originally arrested the five men and two others at a house prayer service. The arrests were part of a larger crackdown against non-Islamic religious groups perceived as posing a threat to the theocratic regime, Morning Star News said.

Charges of threatening national security often are leveled at converts to Christianity in the Islamic Republic, which considers apostates from Islam a dangerous, uncontrolled element in society.

The five men are members of the Church of Iran, a heavily persecuted denomination to which jailed pastor Benham Irani also belongs, Morning Star News said. Irani continues to languish in prison under a six-year sentence for "acting against the interests of national security."

Also imprisoned, facing a nine-year sentence, is Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, the attorney who defended another long-imprisoned Iranian pastor Yousef Nadarkhani whose freedom was the focus of a worldwide campaign that resulted in his release last year.

At least four other Christians are on trial in Iran. They were arrested a year ago in a house church meeting and charged with Christian activities, disturbing national security and distributing propaganda, Morning Star News reported. They apparently were brought to several court appearances in chains, which is illegal even under Iranian law.

In a report March 16, World Watch Monitor cited a rare crackdown on Christians in Isfahan, Iran's third-largest city. The increased persecution is believed to be a tactic to discourage Muslims and converts to Christianity from attending official churches.

Since February, World Watch Monitor said, officials have arrested about 12 Christian converts in Isfahan, including seven who were taken from their homes along with valuables including their Bibles, computers and important documents. None have been officially charged.

Iran is the fifth-worst persecutor of Christians in the world, according to an assessment by the Christian support group Open Doors.