Colorado Springs, January 28 (World Watch Monitor) – Iran on Sunday sentenced an American citizen to eight years in prison because a judge determined his work to establish Christian churches threatened Iran’s national security.
Saeed Abedini’s sentence, delivered after a trial he was partially forbidden to attend, was denounced by the U.S. State Department and by American religious-freedom advocates.
“We condemn Iran’s continued violation of the universal right of freedom of religion,” State Department spokesman Darby Holladay said Sunday.
“This is a real travesty – a mockery of justice,” said Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney group that uses litigation to press for religious and speech freedom. The group represents Abedni’s wife and children, who live in Boise, Idaho.
“Iran has not only abused its own laws, it has trampled on the fundamentals of human rights,” Sekulow said. “We call on the citizens of the world to rise up in protest. We call on governments around the world to stand and defend Pastor Saeed.”
Katrina Lantos Swett, chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an appointed advisory body to Congress and the State Department, called the ruling by Iran’s Revolutionary Court Judge Abbas Pir-Abbassi “an outrageous miscarriage of justice.”
Swett said Abedini’s conviction is “yet one more damning piece of evidence pointing to the rampant denial of religious freedom and the absence of any semblance of rule of law in Iran.”
Abedini, born in Iran, converted to Christianity in 2000 and was helping to start house churches there. He met his wife, Nagmeh, herself Iranian-born and a naturalized U.S. citizen, during one of her visits to family in Iran. They married in 2004, and moved to Idaho in 2005 after Abedini endured an interrogation session over his church activities, Barrans said. As the spouse of an American citizen, Abedini too was granted citizenship.
Tiffany Barrans, international legal director for the American Center for Law and Justice, said Abedini continued to visit Iran, under a 2009 agreement with Iran’s intelligence police. The deal, she said, was that Abedini could come and go from Iran to build a non-religious orphanage, but only if he stayed out of church planting. By last July, he had visited Iran eight times.
Abedini traveled to Iran a ninth time in July, and was arrested in September during a visit in which supporters say he was managing construction of the orphanage.
His trial began Jan. 21 before Pir-Abbassi, a Revolutionary Court judge known in the West primarily for his harsh sentences, including execution, of students who participated in protests after Iran’s 2009 elections. The European Union has branded Pir-Abbassi, among other Iranian judges, a human-rights violator. The U.S. religious-freedom commission has recommended that the State Department make a similar declaration, but it has yet to do so.
The Revolutionary Court answers to the country’s supreme leader, Grand Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei.
The American Center for Law and Justice said prosecutors presented evidence that Abedini created “a network of Christian house churches” starting in 2000, the year he left Islam for Christianity.
“The regime alleged that Pastor Saeed intentionally sought to sway the minds of Iranian youth by turning the youth toward Christianity and against Islam, the official religion of Iran,” the center said in a prepared statement.
The center said Abedini was represented in Iran by “Naser Sarbazi, a Muslim lawyer in Iran who is dedicated to preserving human rights and upholding the right for all individuals to practice their faith freely.” It also said Abedini’s father, who lives in Iran, was the only family member permitted in the courtroom on the trial’s first day.
According to Abedini’s wife, he read Scripture to the court and testified he had no political motives. He and his lawyer were barred from the trial the next day, however, according to the American Center for Law and Justice. Citing “first-hand sources who were present at the hearing,” the center said a lay Christian leader testified that he had worked with Abedini, and that he had encouraged the layman to convert to Christianity.
The center did not identify the sources “because of concern for their safety inside Iran.”
Iran is ranked No. 8 on the 2013 World Watch List, an annual roster of the 50 countries where Christians are persecuted most harshly.