WASHINGTON, D.C. A historic phone call between President Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani Sept. 27 capped a significant week in the case of an American pastor imprisoned in Iran.
During the 15-minute call, Obama voiced concern for Saeed Abedini, a U.S. citizen who marked a year of incarceration for his Christian faith Sept. 26. Though Secretary of State John Kerry has called for Abedini's release, this was the President's first time to speak out on the pastor's behalf.
Obama also expressed concern for two other Americans imprisoned or missing in Iran, in addition to dealing with other topics.
Abedini's wife Naghmeh said the call marked "the most encouraging news I have heard since Saeed was imprisoned one year ago. I am very grateful to President Obama for standing up for Saeed and for the other Americans who are held captive in Iran. This development is truly an answer to prayer."
The conversation was the first time presidents of the two countries have spoken directly since 1979.
During a CNN interview Sept. 25, Rouhani was noncommittal when asked about Abedini, noting that he "cannot interfere in the judicial process" and that America also held Iranians whom he sought to be freed.
But Abedini's family is optimistic in the wake of the presidents' phone call, as Iran released 91 prisoners of conscience in the days leading up to Rouhani's Sept. 24 speech at the United Nations. Two of them were women held since 2009 on charges of "undermining the national security of Iran" after they converted from Islam to Christianity and joined a house church, according to Morning Star News.
The Abedinis are hopeful that the new Iranian president, elected in June on a platform of reconciliation and engagement with the West, will soon add the pastor to the list of those released.
Obama's move was "a significant step forward in this critical case," said Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice, which represents Naghmeh Abedini. "We're ... grateful to President Obama for raising Pastor Saeed's imprisonment and call on President Rouhani to put his promise of being 'moderate' into action by releasing Saeed without further delay."
Earlier in the week, Naghmeh Abedini passed along a letter from her husband to Rouhani when she encountered the Iranian president and his entourage in a New York hotel where she was staying.
As Rouhani approached the elevators Sept. 23, Naghmeh Abedini gave a letter to one of his delegates, who promised to deliver the letter to the president, the ACLJ reported.
In the letter, Saeed Abedini recounted his plight and asked the Iranian president to initiate a review of his case, stating that according to Iran's constitution "choosing the religion and participating in religious meetings and activities are totally legitimate in Iran, but staying in prison for me and other people like me is for sure illegal."
On the anniversary of Abedini's imprisonment Sept. 26, thousands gathered for vigils in more than 70 cities across the United States to pray for the pastor's release.
Abedini, whose wife and two children live in Idaho, has spent the last year in Tehran's harsh Evin Prison, known for housing political dissidents. He was handed an eight-year sentence after being arrested while visiting his parents in Iran and working on building an orphanage.
The 33-year-old pastor had converted from Islam to Christianity in Iran in 2000 and planted house churches until 2005. Although Iran has no law against house churches, the government termed his involvement a threat to "national security," even though he had ceased such work after agreeing in 2009 to limit his ministry to humanitarian work, according to Morning Star News.
Before his trial, Abedini was held in solitary confinement, beaten repeatedly and told he would be killed, according to the ACLJ. He was denied medical treatment and suffered serious infections and internal bleeding presumably sustained during interrogation sessions by prison officials.
In January, he wrote a letter saying he was told he would "hang for your faith in Jesus.