For more than three years, Iranian American pastor Saeed Abedini sat in an Iranian prison, where interrogators beat him and pressured him to recant his faith. Freed this January in a prisoner swap initiated by President Obama, Abedini is now in the United States, where many Christians and religious-liberty groups had prayed and campaigned for his release.
The homecoming has been bittersweet. Last fall, Naghmeh Abedini—who had campaigned tirelessly for her husband—told supporters via email that her marriage has included “physical, emotional, psychological, and sexual abuse (through Saeed’s addiction to pornography).” She has since filed for legal separation. Christianity Today reported on Naghmeh’s emails last fall, and will continue to report on legal developments involving the Abedinis.
Meanwhile, CT print managing editor Katelyn Beaty recently spoke with Saeed about the abuse allegations, how he came to Christ in Iran, and how American Christians have more influence in global affairs than they think.
You’ve been out of prison now for two months. What’s life been like since you’ve returned to the States?
After I got released, it was very different from what I imagined before I got released. I was waiting for more welcome, especially from my family, wife, and the church I went to in Boise, but I didn’t get that. I thought that once I got released from prison, I was going to relax and get time to rest, but the situation got worse. The news, the false accusations—today I can’t feel my freedom yet; it was just like coming out of a prison to another prison.
I’m very sad that the people who have prayed for me for years, some of them with tears and some of them writing me letters—I heard that 100,000 letters came to prison monthly, so people did a good job. But we couldn’t rejoice together for what God did in my life? That was the hardest part.
What is the status of your and Naghmeh’s marriage?
She legally filled out a protection [restraining] order and filed for legal separation. Now we are in that process.
So you felt more support when you were in jail than when you were out of jail?
Yeah. Because people are confused. People now have two different Saeeds. One of them is a hero of their faith; one of them is an abuser, an addicter [sic]. When I talk with some people, I can see the confusion. I don’t believe this confusion is coming from God. This is completely coming from Satan, who wants me to stop preaching the gospel and wants people to stop rejoicing for my release, because it was a big victory for the Christian world. Now with these false accusations, trying to make the churches all around the world confused—it’s clear to me that Satan is behind this.
You said “false accusations.” Does that mean you are saying that Naghmeh’s accusations are false?
Can you talk about the misdemeanor domestic assault charge in 2007? You pled guilty to that, and that suggests there was at least one instance of marital abuse.
I believe courts can make mistakes too. They are not God; they can make a mistake. I talked with Franklin Graham. He asked me to keep silent and not say anything about anyone. Graham encouraged me, “Let other people defend you.” I think the court made a mistake, and I didn’t know that I’d been guilty until three weeks ago. I didn’t know that I got a sentence of 90 days in court until three weeks ago. No one told me.
You don’t remember going to court in 2007?
I did, but it was a time that I had just come to the United States. My English was pretty weak. Everything that happened was between Naghmeh, the lawyer, and the court, so I didn’t know what was going on. They said that everything was okay, that they dismissed everything. So I said, okay, they made a mistake. Then three weeks ago, I saw from the news that I got a guilty charge, and I was shocked.
Did you go to jail in 2007?
Just one night, when Naghmeh called 911, police came and asked what happened and I said this is completely wrong and they said, “Someone just called 911, you need to come with us.” I stayed one night in jail, and the day after that was the court hearing, and Naghmeh said, “I made a mistake. He never did those things.” So they told me they had dismissed it.
Is there anything you need to repent of in your marriage?
Did you read my letter about this accusation that I released when I arrived in Boise, one month ago? It said I completely reject all accusations, but at the same time, I call Naghmeh and [our] children my heroes, because of their advocating for me and their standing for their faith. I just admire them. Naghmeh is my hero; she stood strong for years. But no, I never abused anyone in my life, and I’ve never been addicted to anything.
You were born in Iran in 1980 and were brought up Muslim, but then you converted to Christianity. How did you first encounter Jesus?
Iran has two different kinds of churches, legal and illegal. Legal churches were established before the revolution, 50 or 60 years ago. Ayatollah Khomeini, before he died, gave a fatwa that the churches established before the revolution are legal. But the illegal are house churches. I’ve been an Assemblies of God pastor and worked in both legal and illegal churches in Iran.
In my childhood, our neighbors were an Assemblies of God church. Our yard was just behind the window of the church, so we could hear worship every week. I heard the worship songs and really loved that.
Then when I was 20 years old, I went to that church. The pastor said Jesus is Lord. It was a time when I was a very strong Muslim (when I was just 14, I wanted to sign up in a Hezbollah group to fight Israel), but I got a bad depression and wanted to kill myself. The pastor said Jesus is Lord, so I made a decision to kill the pastor before killing myself. Then I met Jesus face to face.
It was a night when I prayed that God would show me which way is true. I kneeled down under my bed praying like in a mosque, just kneeling down and crying, with a Bible in one hand and a Qur’an in the other, begging God, Show me which way is true. When I slept, a voice woke me up: “Saeed, I’m coming back soon; go preach my gospel.” I woke up and said, “That was just a dream.” Two hours after that the voice woke me up again and said, “Saeed, I’m coming back soon,” and I thought, “Okay, I guess I need to go to a psychiatrist.” The third time I heard a huge voice shaking my room like a bomb, and I woke up and saw a light in the room, and for the first time in my life, I felt the amazing presence of the Lord. I couldn’t handle it. It weighed very heavy on me. So I said, “Amen.”
While in prison, you were subject to beatings and torture, were in solitary confinement for a time, and were pressured to return to Islam. How did you endure?
Ever since I became a Christian, I knew I could be killed for converting from Islam to Christianity. Since the first day, I’ve been fighting with this fear. We were among the first [Iranian] house churches, so many times I was attacked by a spirit of fear. But being a Christian and fighting the fear, you learn how to grow and trust the Lord. Your answer is going to be: keep your eyes on Jesus.
There is a fear that’s created among Muslims—all the things that we see in the media, that ISIS is cutting Christians’ heads off, that al-Qaeda is beating people to death in prison and sending death threats. That’s the way that Islam works, pushing you in a spirit of fear. Unfortunately, I saw that being very successful both for the political prisoners and Christians [in prison].
Did you have a Bible in prison?
For the first six months, no. I asked [for] my Bible. They said, “You’re here because you became Christian, and now you’re asking for a Bible? We’ll never give you a Bible.” But after six months I could get one, because of the pressure and the media attention.
When you were in prison, did you have access to the outside world?
The Iran government never let me call my wife and children, but illegally, like passing drugs in prison, you could buy a cell phone, but it was very expensive.
How did you know about the media attention?
Every time my parents came to see me, weekly, they told me. The first six months, I couldn’t get access to a phone, but when I saw my brother and parents, when my brother hugged me, he said in my ear, “The whole world now knows.” I got so excited, because the first six months were really hard, being in solitary, being in interrogations. When I heard that my imprisonment had turned to preach the gospel, I rejoiced. It was life coming back to my body. Not because I got famous, but because the whole world was hearing the gospel, so I rejoiced in the Lord and saw that my chains weren’t in vain.
How often was your family allowed to see you?
For the first one and a half years, we could hug each other, and that was the time that my brother spoke into my ear. Then we had to talk behind windows using phones, and we knew the phones were being recorded. Then my brother left Iran and became a refugee in Turkey, because the interrogators took my family, my sister-in-law, and my parents into interrogation, so they were forced to leave the country and became refugees in Turkey.
My parents are here [in the United States], they got a green card, and my brother and my youngest sister-in-law are still in Turkey.
Were you able to have any contact with Naghmeh while in prison?
Yes, after six to eight months, I could get my cell phone so I could be connected to Naghmeh and the children, when the soldiers were sleeping. We were always under camera, so I went under blankets and could talk to them for 10 minutes at a time the first year. All the time we would both be crying. I just tried to encourage them, because I knew the situation for them was harder than for me. I was trying as hard as possible to encourage them from the phone.
Many evangelicals, including our readers, supported you and prayed for you while you were imprisoned. Could US Christians have done more for you?
Christians did a good job actually, but I think the Lord is starting something—it’s not finished.
In my letter to President Obama thanking him, I wrote that the waves are leading the surfer. The waves are the churches, and the surfer is the President. We forget that we can lead the surfer with the waves we create. And this wave is revival, and I believe my case and my imprisonment was just to bring the revival, to bring unity, to start a momentum that pushes the leaders in the way that we should go.
As you know, media said the US government or Obama didn’t want to get involved in this case. But when the wave was starting because of the unity of prayer, because the church was moving, because the whole Christian world was moving, they created a wave and that led the President. We are people who can lead our President and lead our leaders in a way that God wants. Sometimes we forget our power. We’re just focusing on the head to move; we need to remember that the legs actually move the head.
Where should we be headed now as a church?
All Americans now know that we need revival. America today is different from the America I saw before I went to prison. Americans don’t think like they thought four years ago. They are very thirsty. Now they are looking for real change. They are looking to find that change in political ways. They found out that something is wrong, but they are looking for it in the wrong way, in politicians and the next president. I never saw America be involved in politics like this. It means that people are thirsty, they need something, but it’s only going to come from Jesus Christ and revival. I believe revival is going to come back.
Since you’ve returned you’ve said that you are not a perfect person. Why is that important for us to keep in mind about persecuted Christians?
We are all human, and it’s not about me, it’s not about persecuted Christians, it’s not about ministry or denominations—it’s about Jesus. Personally, I needed to keep my faith because I want to go to eternal life. That’s the main goal, in any circumstance or condition; I want to be a saved Christian. If I deny him, he’s going to deny me. He’s very clear; that’s the deal.
I am a sinner. I believe I’ve been forgiven by his grace and by his blood that was shed on the cross. I don’t want to talk about myself but about him. Every day I should be concerned and careful that I don’t lose my salvation, because we can lose it if we don’t walk with God, if we don’t keep our faith. It doesn’t matter if you’re a hero—you can be a zero. If you’re on top of the mountain, you can fall down. The higher and higher you go, the possibility of falling only grows.
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