President Barack Obama will meet with the family of a U.S. pastor imprisoned in Iran on Wednesday in Boise, Idaho, an administration official has confirmed.
Obama will visit with Naghmeh Abedini, the wife of Saeed Abedini, along with their two children as he travels to Boise to discuss proposals from his State of the Union address.
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Iranian authorities initially detained Abedini in September 2012. He was later sentenced to eight years in prison on charges related to his Christian faith.
Naghmeh Abedini said in a statement that she had repeatedly attempted to either meet with the president or talk with him on the phone for the last two years.
"I was overjoyed when I heard that President Obama wanted to meet with the kids and I during his short visit here in Boise," she said. "I have tried over the last two years to meet with the president or even get a phone call from him without success. It is truly an answer to prayer that he is coming to Boise and it is a miracle that he is meeting with us. I see God’s Hand in arranging this crucial meeting."
Bernadette Meehan, a National Security Council spokeswoman, confirmed that Obama would meet with the Abedini family but declined to comment on what they would discuss.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest has refused to rule out the possibility that a deal could be struck with Iran on its nuclear program while American citizens remain imprisoned in the country—describing the two issues as "separate tracks."
Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly raised Abedini’s case with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on the sidelines of nuclear negotiations last week in Geneva.
"The fact is, we believe these American citizens should be released," Earnest said during a press briefing last week. "And we also believe that Iran should take the steps that are necessary to resolve the international community’s concerns about their nuclear program. These are both priorities, but these are both priorities that are raised with the Iranians on separate tracks."
The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), a Washington, D.C.-based group that represents the Abedini family, has sharply criticized the White House position on Abedini’s release in relation to the nuclear talks.
"The U.S. government should not consider reaching a final nuclear agreement with Iran while Pastor Saeed remains wrongfully imprisoned in Iran because of his Christian faith," the group said in a recent statement. "How can we trust Iran with a nuclear program as it violates the human rights of U.S. citizens?"
Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-American, moved with his wife in 2005 to the United States after facing repression in Iran for his leadership of the underground Christian community. Leaders of the country’s Islamic government view the network of unsanctioned Christian house churches as a threat to national security and an imposition of Western values.
Abedini spent most of his recent trips to Iran working on an orphanage that he says was not religious in nature. Authorities nonetheless detained him in 2012.
Abedini converted to Christianity after a radical Islamist group recruited him to be a suicide bomber. Muslim converts to Christianity can be sentenced to death under Islamic law for waging war against the faith.
After recovering at an Iranian hospital from abuse suffered in detention, Abedini was "severely beaten" again in May 2014 when he was transferred back to the notorious Rajai Shahr prison.
Other U.S. citizens also remain behind bars in Iran. Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post’s bureau chief in Tehran, was indicted last Wednesday—the same day Kerry met with Zarif about the nuclear talks—on unspecified charges. He was previously in detention for nearly six months.
Abedini’s two kids—Rebekka and Jacob—urged Obama to secure their father’s release in a video uploaded to YouTube last year.
"I don’t want him to miss another birthday, or a Christmas, or Father’s Day," Jacob says.
"Please help bring him home."