TEHRAN, Iran (BP) -- An Iranian-born pastor who is a naturalized U.S. citizen was sentenced to eight years in a notoriously harsh Iranian prison Sunday (Jan. 27) for "threatening the national security of Iran" by planting Christian house churches.
Reports indicate the sentence came as somewhat of a shock to the pastor's supporters after Iranian authorities had indicated he would be released.
Saeed Abedini, 32, was in Iran last summer to finish building an orphanage when members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard took him away in a bus for prison. He has been held captive and reportedly beaten and tortured since September.
The U.S. government and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom have issued calls for Abedini's release.
"The trial and conviction of Pastor Abedini represent an outrageous miscarriage of justice and yet one more damning piece of evidence pointing to the rampant denial of religious freedom and the absence of any semblance of rule of law in Iran," USCIRF chair Katrina Lantos Swett said in a statement Jan. 28.
The Washington-based American Center for Law and Justice, which is representing the pastor's wife and children living in the United States, said the eight-year sentence "sadly underscores Iran's brazen violation of international law" and is a "tragic reminder that Iran is one of the world's worst offenders of religious freedom."
Abedini's lawyer apparently learned from a friend of the pastor's family that the lawyer should report to court Jan. 27 because Abedini was being released, ACLJ said.
Instead, Judge Pir-Abassi of Branch 26 of the Iranian Revolutionary Court -- known as the "hanging judge" for his brutal sentences -- verbally convicted and sentenced the pastor despite the country's law requiring a written verdict, ACLJ reported.
"This is a real travesty -- a mockery of justice," Jordan Sekulow, ACLJ's executive director, said in a news release Jan. 27. "From the very beginning, Iranian authorities have lied about all aspects of this case, even releasing rumors of his expected release.
"Iran has not only abused its own laws, it has trampled on the fundamentals of human rights. We call on the citizens of the world to rise up in protest. We call on governments around the world to stand and defend Pastor Saeed," Sekulow said.
Upon hearing that her husband had been sentenced to eight years in Tehran's Evin Prison, described by London's Daily Mail as "the infamous gulag that houses most of the country's political prisoners," Abedini's wife Naghmeh said the promise of his release had been a lie.
"We should not trust the empty words or promises put out by the Iranian government," Naghmeh Abedini, an American, said, according to ACLJ. "These false hopes amount to psychological torture. You don't want to trust them, but they build a glimmer of hope before the crushing blow.
"With today's development I am devastated for my husband and my family," Naghmeh Abedini said. "We must now pursue every effort, turn every rock, and not stop until Saeed is safely on American soil."
Abedini and his wife have two children, a 6-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son.
According to World Watch Monitor, a news service focusing on the persecuted church, Abedini converted from Islam to Christianity in 2000 and helped start house churches in Iran. He had been arrested multiple times by authorities, but Tiffany Barrans, ACLJ's international legal director, told World Watch Monitor that in 2009 the pastor made a deal with Iran's intelligence police.
That deal allowed him to come back to Iran to build an orphanage in exchange for staying out of house church work, an agreement his supporters say he kept.
But before Abedini's latest trip to Iran, the religiously controlled Revolutionary Guard took jurisdiction over Iran's Christian community from the intelligence police, Barrans said, coinciding with a more aggressive campaign to drive Christianity out of Iran.
U.S. State Department spokesman Darby Holladay called for Abedini's release and noted that the pastor's lawyer had only one day (Jan. 21) to present his defense in court.
"We remain deeply concerned about the fairness and transparency of Mr. Abedini's trial," Holladay said before the verdict was announced.
Sekulow had said the trial "apparently is focused on 13 years ago, when Pastor Saeed converted from Islam to Christianity." Evidence in the trial was based on the pastor's activities primarily during the early 2000s, when house churches were not necessarily considered a threat in Iran, ACLJ said.
Lantos Swett of USCIRF also voiced concern over the manner in which the case was handled.
"The charges against Pastor Abedini were contrived, the process was irregular and deeply flawed, and the conviction flies in the face of both Iranian and international law," she said. "Judge Pir-Abassi has been responsible for particularly severe violations of religious freedom. We call on the Iranian government to immediately release Pastor Abedini.
"In addition, we call on the U.S. and the international community to raise Pastor Abedini's case in all international fora, including the U.N. Human Rights Council. We reiterate our call for the U.S. government to freeze the assets and deny entry into the U.S. of Judge Pir-Abassi and other Iranian judges and government officials who have committed violations of religious freedom and related human rights, including the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, who would have had to approve the pastor's harsh sentence," Lantos Swett said.
USCIRF has recommended that Iran be designated a "country of particular concern" for its systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom. The State Department has designated Iran as a country of particular concern since 1999.
Abedini was granted U.S. citizenship in 2010 through marriage to his American wife, ACLJ reported. In 2008, he became an ordained minister with the American Evangelistic Association. Iran does not recognize his U.S. citizenship.
Nearly 50 members of the U.S. House of Representatives had called for Abedini's release, Christianity Today reported.
In a statement prior to the pastor's sentence, Lantos Swett said the national security charges were "a typical tactic by the Iranian government to masquerade the real reason for the charges: to suppress religious belief and activity of which the Iranian government does not approve."
Erin Roach is assistant editor of Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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