ISTANBUL, Turkey (BP) — Iranian authorities heightened pressure on U.S.-Iranian pastor Saeed Abedini in April, threatening to keep him in prison indefinitely, Morning Star News reported May 1.
Authorities seem to be taking a “carrot-and-stick” approach to Abedini — leveling new, petty charges while promising him freedom if he abandons his faith in Christ and returns to Islam, Tiffany Barrans, international director at the American Center for Law and Justice, told Morning Star, a news service focusing on the persecuted church.
“They have said, ‘Don’t think you’ll get out after eight years. We’ll add additional reasons to keep you,'” Barrans said. “That’s the kind of threat in conjunction with an uptick of ‘If you recant, if you return to Islam, we will let you go.’ That’s not anything new, but it’s a very concentrated, intense time in the prison at present.”
The psychological weight of new charges against other Christians “certainly has been taking its toll, because Saeed has seen it come to reality for so many others,” Barrans said.
In Gohardasht Prison, also known as Rajai-Shahr, pastor Farshid Fathi could face an additional two-year sentence after an imam overseeing one of the prison’s wards accused Fathi of insulting him. The imam filed the complaint after Fathi and other prisoners defied his order for all Bibles in the prison ward to be inspected, the Iranian/Christian news service Mohabat News reported in March, with Morning Star noting that the imam did not have the legal authority to order the inspection.
On Dec. 29 of last year, Fathi was sentenced to an additional year in prison after authorities accused him of having alcohol — communion wine — in prison. He has appealed the decision.
Last October, Iranian authorities sentenced three pastors, Behnam Irani, Abdolreza Ali-Haghnejad and Reza Rabbani in the Church of Iran to six years in prison for “actions against national security” and “creating a network to overthrow the system,” catch-all terms the Islamist government uses to suppress Christians and political opponents it perceives as threats. Originally authorities charged the men with “Mofsed-fel-arz” or “spreading corruption on Earth,” a charge that can carry the death penalty.
Barrans said pressure on Abedini comes and goes in waves, with the current round of ill treatment likely related to international efforts to limit Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons.
Iran has long been at the receiving end of a variety of economic sanctions from the U.S. government, the United Nations and others in an effort to stop its nuclear program. Iran wants to end the sanctions while maintaining as much of its program as possible.
“I can’t say there’s an actual causation, but certainly a possible correlation between the framework that was reached with the P5+1 countries,” Barrans said, referring to the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany addressing Iran’s nuclear program. “There’s just been an increased amount of activity and tension and threats and singling out of Saeed as an American in the prison since the framework agreement was reached between the countries. These nuclear negotiations have dramatically complicated the situation — as much as our government insists that he is not a political pawn, and that they will not allow him to be used as a political pawn.”
Barrans said that if the U.S. government “leaves the table without getting Abedini’s freedom, it makes things much more difficult to get his release.”
September marks Abedini’s third year in prison. According to Iranian law, most criminal offenders can apply for clemency or parole when they have served one-third of their sentences. Barrans said Abedini’s family is in the process of applying for that.
So far, their efforts for clemency have met with no results.
Abedini, whose 35th birthday is May 7, became a U.S. citizen in 2010. His wife Naghmeh and their two children live in the United States. The Iranian government does not recognize his U.S. citizenship.
He was initially arrested in July 2012 by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard during his visit to set up an orphanage. After interrogation, authorities placed Abedini under house arrest and told him to wait for a court summons to face criminal charges for his Christian faith.
Two months later, in September, Abedini was arrested at his parents’ home and taken to prison. He was sentenced in January 2013 to eight years in prison for allegedly threatening “national security” by planting house churches years ago.