The wife of an American Christian pastor imprisoned in Iran confronted Iranian President Hassan Rowhani to lobby for her ailing husband’s release on Monday in New York City.
Naghmeh Abedini, the wife of jailed Pastor Saeed Abedini, confronted Rowhani and his United Nations delegation in the lobby of New York’s One U.N. hotel, where both parties are staying.
Abedini delivered to the Iranian delegation a written plea from her husband, who has been imprisoned in Iran for nearly a year after being arrested for promoting his Christian faith and helping orphans.
He has been sentenced to serve an eight-year term.
Abedini’s wife intercepted Rowhani and his delegation as they made their way to the hotel’s lobby elevators.
"I got a letter that Saeed has written to the president and pursued them to the elevator," Abedini said. "I approached him and introduced myself."
Abedini attempted to address Rowhani but narrowly missed him as the elevator doors closed.
She instead approached the Iranian delegation’s security detail and other delegates who were still in the lobby, who promised to deliver Pastor Saeed’s appeal to Rowhani.
"They were shocked that I pursued them," she said, noting that all of the Iranians seemed to be "well aware" of Pastor Saeed’s situation. "It was very shocking for them, this incident."
The Iranian delegates opened Saeed’s letter and began reading it immediately, Abedini recalled.
"A person took it, and that delegate had others looking at it," she said.
Asked if she took the delegation at their word, Abedini said she believes they would "make the president aware of [the letter] if not deliver it to him."
Upon learning that she was staying at the same hotel, security officers anticipated that Abedini might try to approach Rowhani and his delegation.
"They were very nervous we were at the same hotel," she said. "They wanted to make sure I wouldn’t pursue them any more."
Saeed’s letter to Rowhani presses the newly installed president to protect religious minorities.
"I hope the person who has sworn to protect the rights of citizens and practice the Constitution, issues the required instructions and orders for reviewing my case by the security authorities of the new government," wrote Saeed, who is currently incarcerated with many other political prisoners.
"Please take immediate action in this regard and do not let me and a lot of people in my ward become the victims of the fire that extremists have made, those who have turned Iran into a vortex of crisis," Saeed wrote, according to a translation of the letter, which was originally penned in Farsi. "Considering the fact that I came to Iran to serve the orphans, please do not let them make my children orphans and my wife without a guardian."
The Iranian courts sentenced Pastor Abedini to an eight-year prison term. His supporters say that this is tantamount to a death sentence given his ailing health.
Abedini has been subject to regular beatings and torture, his supporters say.
Iranian judges have refused to reduce Abedini’s sentence despite appeals from the U.S. government and Western human rights groups such as the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ).
Iranian intelligence agents raided Abedini’s home in 2012 and placed him in solitary confinement.
"Then they put me into solitary confinement in Ward 209 of Evin Prison where I was detained four months," Abedini recounted in his letter to Rowhani.
"During this extremely difficult, exhausting and tormenting period that cannot be described here, I was in agony from the severity of stomach bleeding and other internal diseases as a result of terrible condition in the detention until finally, after four months, I was transferred to Ward 305," he wrote.
Naghmeh Abedini said that if Rowhani is serious about moderating Iran’s extremist behavior, he should immediately release her husband.
"There’s an opportunity for them to walk the walk," she said.
"I don’t believe they plan to change their stance on Christianity and minorities," Abedini said. "I don’t think they have changed their strategy on Saeed and these issues. They’re just presenting themselves as more moderate and buying time."
Organizations such as the ACLJ have been pushing for Pastor Saeed’s release.
More than 620,000 have signed a petition urging the pastor’s release. The State Department has also begun to push for his freedom and a State Department representative will be present at a rally tomorrow in front of the White House.
"It’s a big shift in what’s happening in working with our government," said Jordan Sekulow, ACLJ executive director. "We’ve moved from reactive to proactive for Saeed."
The world will learn in the coming weeks if Rowhani is serious about moderating the Iranian regime and ending its persecution of Christian minorities, Sekulow said
"We’ll see if this president has the authority he’s claimed to have," he said.
Naghmeh Abedini also vowed to continue pressuring the Iranians.
"I will not slow down in my efforts until Saeed is on American soil," she said. "No promises, no words mean much to me unless I see action."