The wife of an American citizen sentenced to an 8-year term in an Iranian prison does not expect to hear from her husband until 2021, unless U.S. pressure is able procure his release.
Naghmeh Shariat Panahi told World Watch Monitor that the last time she heard her husband, Saeed Abedini’s voice was Jan. 9, during a 3-minute cell phone call between Boise, Idaho and Tehran, Iran. Abedini’s family in Iran held two cell phones together — one linked to Panahi in America, the other to Abedeni in a holding cell — so the two could exchange words.
“He wanted to hear the kids’ voices,” Panahi said Tuesday from her Idaho home. The couple has a 6-year-old daughter, Rebekkah, and a 4-year-old son, Jacob. After the 3 minutes were up, “we heard there will be no more phone calls,” she said.
Abedini, 32, was sentenced Sunday by a Revolutionary Court judge who concluded that Abedini’s work to establish Christian churches threatened Iran’s national security. Born into a Muslim family in Iran, Abedini converted to Christianity in 2000 and subsequently spent several years establishing small “house churches.” He was arrested in September, though his U.S.-based advocates say Abedini had agreed in 2009 to stop organizing churches. Since then, they say, he had turned his attention to building a non-religious orphanage and had made several trips to Iran for that purpose.
His trial began on Jan. 21st. Though he testified that he had no political objectives in sharing his faith, he and his Iranian lawyer were barred from the next day’s proceedings, during which other Christians were called in to testify about Abedini’s church work. After sentencing, he was sent to Iran’s Evin prison, where a long list of political prisoners have been interned over the years.
Panahi said her husband’s lawyer is preparing an appeal of the conviction, but she added that the window of opportunity won’t be open for long. “Appealing his case, the sentence, we have limited time to put pressure on Iran,” she said. But neither she nor Tiffany Barrans, a U.S.-based international lawyer who represents Panahi, said they hold out much hope for persuading the Iranian Revolutionary Court to overturn the decision of one of its most prominent judges. Barrans told World Watch Monitor on Tuesday that the more promising route to freedom runs through American diplomatic pressure. She said the United States, which does not have diplomatic relations with Iran, can exert leverage by enlisting the help of U.S. allies that trade with the Islamic Republic.
Panahi said the State Department has been in regular contact with her since mid-December. Though they sometimes update her with new information, more often they are asking her for information, which she said she obtains from near-daily phone contact with Abedini’s family who are under house arrest in Iran. “Their response has been there’s not much they can do,” Panahi said about the American authorities. “They’re saying they’re working on it. It seems they are dragging their feet. They have said they are concerned, but there is not a lot of information on what they are doing.”
Panahi, who was born in Iran but raised in the United States and is a naturalized U.S. citizen, met Abedini during one of her visits to family in Iran. The couple married in 2004, and moved to Idaho in 2005 after Abedini endured an interrogation session in Iran over his church activities, Barrans said. As the spouse of an American citizen, Abedini was granted citizenship.
Panahi said she cannot phone her husband in prison or visit him. “This is the very hard, heartbreaking part of it,” she said. “As a wife, my first reaction was to travel and be there. Unfortunately, I was threatened that if I step one foot in an airport in Iran, I would be arrested, and then the children would have no mother or father.”
She said she and the children are living with her parents, in Idaho. Her church community, Calvary Chapel of Boise, has rallied around the family with prayer. “The greatest support has been prayer,” she said. Urgent prayer. “Unless we get him out quickly, we won’t have a chance to release him for years to come.”
Lord God, we know that You came to set the captives free. We come before you today rejoicing that Your power and authority are greater than any earthly judge or nation. Our brother, Saeed Abedini, sits in an Iranian prison cell for the crime of sharing Your love. Please fill his heart with Your peace that passes understanding even in the midst of seemingly hopeless circumstances. Soften the hearts of his guards to see the Spirit of God in Abedini and desire to know the same God. We ask that You would work in the heart of the appeals court judge to reconsider his sentence, and that the U.S. State Department would find a way to help procure his release. Please wrap Your arms around Panahi, Rebekkah, and Jacob, as well as their extended family, and fill their hearts with supernatural peace and comfort from Your Spirit as they walk through this dark valley. Let each member of their family come to know You more deeply as the Shepherd and Comforter of their souls through this situation. Amen.