Newly elected Iranian president Hassan Rouhani arrived at the United Nations on Monday, projecting the face of a reforming Iran after his government released 80 opposition prisoners, WORLD magazine's Emily Belz reports. Rouhani said he would "take the opportunity to present the true face of Iran as a cultured and peace-loving country," and said he may even meet with President Barack Obama. But when Rouhani arrived at his New York hotel across the street from the U.N., where the General Assembly begins this week, he crossed paths with the wife of a prisoner his country has not released: Iranian-American pastor Saeed Abedini.
Abedini has been held in Iran's infamous Evin Prison for almost a year, arrested as a threat to national security while he worked at an orphanage in Iran. His lawyers in the United States say he was jailed for his Christian faith, and that he has been tortured and beaten in the year since. The government sentenced Abedini to eight years in prison and has refused to let him to speak to his wife, Naghmeh, and their two young children, ages 7 and 5. Naghmeh said the Iranians executed two prisoners in front of her husband in an effort to intimidate him.
Naghmeh Abedini happened to be staying in the same New York hotel as Rouhani, though she and her lawyer from the American Center for Law and Justice, Tiffany Barrans, had not intentionally booked a room there. However, while reading news reports, they realized they would be in the same hotel as Rouhani and prayed they might cross paths with him.
As Belz met with Abedini and Barrans in the hotel lobby for an interview, Barrans noticed Iranian security milling about, and then American and Iranian security becoming more active.
"Something's happening," Barrans said. A few moments passed. "That’s him, that's him," she said, as Rouhani walked by, less than 10 feet from Abedini.
"President Rouhani?" Abedini asked in disbelief. Rouhani was less recognizable because he wore a suit instead of his traditional dress. Abedini grabbed a letter her husband had written the president and walked over to the elevators, where Rouhani was surrounded by Iranian and American security. He stepped onto an elevator, but some of his Iranian aides stayed behind.
Abedini approached one of the Iranian aides and said in Farsi, "I'm the wife of Saeed Abedini, who you have in Evin Prison." The aide recognized the name and looked shocked, Abedini said. She asked him to give the letter to the president, and the aide said he would.
As Belz writes, "The chances of this kind of meeting are very slim because security is so tight around the General Assembly. Barricades and security checks surrounded the hotel, along with dozens of FBI agents and New York Police Department officers. Also, Barrans only had an non-governmental organization pass to the U.N., so the two wouldn't have access to the actual General Assembly. The meeting in the hotel lobby was the only way they could have come so close to Rouhani."
"I didn't know if they were going to stop me," Naghmeh Abedini said of the Iranian security. "That was so intense." She said of Rouhani: "OK, you're a moderate — let's see it."
Meanwhile, Abedini says her husband remains bold for Jesus Christ in prison, according to Charisma News. She said in spite of being tortured and asked to deny his faith in Christ and return to Islam, he remained unwavering in his faith. "They've told him many times that they would free him and allow him to return to our family, the kids and I, if he would deny his Christian faith, and he's stood strong in that prison," she said. "He's led many, many — over 30 people — to Christ in that prison."
The American Center for Law and Justice recently launched an online campaign to help secure Saeed Abedini's release. The campaign at BeHeardProject.com is asking people to write letters to President Rouhani appealing for justice and freedom for Abedini. Supporters can write a letter directly to the Iranian president or add their names to a petition containing the names of more than 620,000 people who have signed on already demanding the pastor's release. The ACLJ's goal is to send Rouhani 52,000 letters — 1,000 for each week that Abedini has been imprisoned — asking him to save the 33-year-old U.S. citizen.
While U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has issued two brief statements urging Iran to release Abedini, the ACLJ and his family continue to call on President Barack Obama to speak out directly on his behalf. On September 26, the one-year anniversary of the pastor's arrest, prayer vigils will be held in the U.S. and around the world in an effort to call attention to his plight and advocate for his release. For more information about Pastor Saeed Abedini and for a list of locations of the September 26 prayer vigils, visit SaveSaeed.org.
Anna Kuta is the editor of ReligionToday.com.
Publication date: September 24, 2013
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