An adviser to President Barack Obama recently asked Iranian government officials to release imprisoned U.S. pastor Saeed Abedini amid repeated calls for the administration to take a tougher stand against human rights abuses in Iran.
Joel Hunter, a pastor at Northland Church in Orlando and a spiritual adviser to Obama, discussed religious tolerance with Iranian officials at a conference in late May, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported over the weekend. Hunter led a delegation of U.S. religious leaders to the conference in Tehran and met with Iranian religious leaders, the country’s parliament speaker, and advisers to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
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When asked by the BBC in Iran whether he raised the case of Abedini—a U.S. citizen and Christian pastor who has now been detained for almost two years in Iran—Hunter said he requested his release, according to a translation of the interview provided by the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ).
"It was because of this dialogue that we were able to ask the Iranian government for clemency for him and we were able to bring this up with the right person and the right environment," Hunter said. "This opportunity was provided to us by the Iranians themselves and it did not happen because of any pressure from us. In general, these dialogues help these prisoners a lot."
Hunter’s request provided welcome news to Abedini’s wife Naghmeh in Idaho, who has been cut off from her husband during his detention in Iran’s notorious Rajai Shahr prison.
"This is great news for Saeed and for the Iranian people," she said in a statement. "This development is very encouraging and I remain hopeful that the United States will continue to raise Saeed's case with Iran. We continue to pray for his freedom."
Abedini is now serving an eight-year jail sentence on charges related to his Christian faith and his attempt to build an orphanage in Iran. He has reportedly been beaten and denied medical treatment at the Rajai Shahr prison, which houses Iran’s most violent criminals.
His condition began to improve after he was moved to a hospital in March. However, he was beaten and forcibly removed from the hospital last month in a sudden transfer back to prison that one guard said might have been linked to nuclear talks between the West and Iran.
Jordan Sekulow, an executive director of the ACLJ who has helped represent Abedini’s family, said in an interview that the State Department has expressed renewed interest in Abedini’s case since his reentry into prison. Abedini’s family in Iran visited with him on Wednesday and said his health has improved somewhat since the beatings he incurred in the hospital.
Still, Sekulow said Abedini’s plight remains urgent.
"Saeed’s life is always in jeopardy," he said.
"If the [Iranian] government abandons the nuclear talks what happens?" he added. "We don’t always know if we have a few weeks."
Critics have assailed the Obama administration for only discussing human rights issues such as religious prisoners on the sidelines of nuclear negotiations with Iran.
Hunter said he raised the persecution of religious minorities in "sidebar conversations" only and added that his delegation "didn't go over there to confront people on certain issues."
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran noted in March that hundreds remain behind bars for exercising fundamental rights, including journalists, human rights activists, Baha’is, Sunni Muslims, and Christians. Iranian authorities also executed almost 700 people last year, many without fair trials, according to human rights groups.
Ayatollahs in Iran continue to advocate against equal rights for religious minorities such as Baha’is and Jews, according to Iranian media reports.
Michael Rubin, a former Iran adviser at the Pentagon during the George W. Bush administration, said in an email that Iran’s continued persecution of religious and political prisoners—despite the election of purported moderate Hassan Rouhani—spells trouble for the nuclear negotiations and prisoners like Abedini.
"Respect for religious liberty is one of the best indicators that a rogue regime is sincere about coming in from the cold," said Rubin, author of Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes. "Unfortunately, Obama doesn’t know his history."
Neither the State Department nor a spokesperson for Hunter responded to requests for comment.