Pastor Saeed Abedini, a U.S. citizen and ethnic Iranian who returned to Iran, has been imprisoned and tortured there for six months because of his Christian ministry. The prosecutor, in outlining the charges against him, said Abedini had undermined the Iranian government by creating a network of Christian house churches.
“This is a real travesty, a mockery of justice,” said Jay Sekulow, Executive Director of the American Center for Law and Justice, which has been lobbying for the pastor’s release. “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.”
Sekulow said it is deeply troubling that “we have a U.S. citizen who has been beaten and tortured since his imprisonment last fall, now facing eight years in Evin Prison, one of the most brutal prisons in Iran.” He added that the pastor, whose wife Naghmeh and their two small children remain in the United States, will most likely continue to face “life-threatening torture and abuse at the hands of the Iranian regime — simply because of his Christian faith.”
According to The New American, the Muslim-born, naturalized American citizen Abedini became a Christian after training to be a suicide bomber in his native Iran. “His wife, the American-born Naghmeh, whom he married in 2005, related that Abedini had become very depressed as a result of the training, and that “Christianity saved his life.” Following his Christian conversion, Abedini ultimately became a leader in Iran’s underground church, and before leaving the country, oversaw about 100 churches and 2,000 members in 30 Iranian cities. He had returned to Iran to help establish a non-sectarian orphanage.”
Fox News notes that: “On the day he was confirmed as Secretary of State, John Kerry went farther than his predecessor had in condemning Iran for imprisoning an American citizen . . . Kerry, the longtime Democratic senator from Massachusetts, made the statement in response to a written query from fellow Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who asked if Kerry, as Secretary of State, would join the National Security Council’s call for Saeed Abedini’s release.
“’We remain deeply concerned about the fairness and transparency of Mr. Abedini’s trial,’ Kerry told Rubio. ‘I, along with the U.S. government, condemn Iran’s continued violation of the universal right of freedom of religion and call on the Iranian authorities to respect Mr. Abedini’s human rights and release him.’”
U.S. citizens who are persecuted for their faith overseas are not a typical priority for the U.S. Government or the media, human rights lawyer Nina Shea has observed. And it was not until March 22, in a statement issued very late on a Friday, that Secretary of State John Kerry made a proactive call for Abedini’s release. “I am deeply concerned about the fate of U.S citizen Saeed Abedini, who has been detained for almost six months and was sentenced to eight years in prison in Iran on charges related to his religious beliefs,” Kerry wrote. “I am disturbed by reports that Mr. Abedini has suffered physical and psychological abuse in prison, and that his condition has become increasingly dire.”
Pastor Saeed is far from alone in suffering persecution for his Christian faith. Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary estimates that an average of 159,960 Christians worldwide are martyred for their faith each year. Deseret News boils the numbers down to a Christian martyred every five minutes – killed because they name Jesus as their Savior.
Open Doors, a non-profit organization working in the world’s most oppressive countries, providing Bibles and literature, media, leadership training, socio-economic development and ensuring prayer, presence and advocacy for persecuted Christians, recently released its 2013 ranking of the 50 countries where persecution of Christians is most severe. Topping the list are: North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Maldives, Mali, Iran, Yemen, Eritrea, Syria, Sudan and Nigeria.
North Korea is described on the Open Doors website as “the most difficult place on earth to be a Christian. One of the remaining Communist states, it is vehemently opposed to religion of any kind. Christians are classified as hostile and face arrest, detention, torture, even public execution. There is a system of labour camps including the renowned prison No. 15, which reportedly houses 6,000 Christians alone. But despite severe oppression, there is a growing underground church movement of an estimated 400,000 Christians.”
In Saudi Arabia, according to Open Doors, there is no provision for religious freedom in the Islamic kingdom’s constitution. “All citizens must adhere to Islam and conversion to another religion is punishable by death. Public Christian worship is forbidden; worshippers risk imprisonment, lashing, deportation and torture. Evangelising Muslims and distributing non-Muslim materials is illegal. Muslims who convert to Christianity risk honour killings, and foreign Christian workers have been exposed to abuse from employers. Despite this, converts are responding to Christian TV programmes and to dreams and visions from God.” Despite persecution, despite martyrdom, Christianity is growing rapidly, perhaps undergoing its largest expansion in history.
Their Blood Cries Out: The Worldwide Tragedy of Modern Christians who are Dying for Their Faith, by religious liberty scholar Paul Marshall with journalist Lela Gilbert, is one of the most moving books I’ve read on the persecution of Christians. In this, the authors reveal the reality of this present-day horror and offer suggestions on what individuals and churches can do to help those who are suffering.
Marshall, Gilbert, and Shea have also now released a new book on the international torment of Christians called Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians (Thomas Nelson). Their launch was March 27 at the Hudson Institute, where all three are affiliated, with Dietrich Bonhoeffer biographer Eric Metaxas moderating.
Mark Tooley, on the blog site Juicy Ecumenism, shared the following comments from the authors today:
“Churches themselves don’t take notice sometimes,” Nina Shea sadly observed about persecution of Christians. “Not too many people are paying attention.” And “political correctness has grown even in churches.” She contrasted today’s indifference to the wide coalition of the 1990s that rallied for global religious liberty, which led to the International Religious Freedom Act, mandating that U.S. foreign policy prioritize the issue. That coalition had been led and cheered on by, among others, evangelical leader Chuck Colson and New York Times columnist A.M. Rosenthal, both now deceased.
The indifference and ignorance even within American churches is compounded by little knowledge that significant Christian communities even exist in majority Muslim countries, Paul Marshall noted, much less that they are increasingly under siege.
While the church is growing exponentially in Asia, Central America, South America, and Africa – in settings that are often, as noted, extraordinarily oppressive – it is dead or dying in Europe and in the United States. Up until 1955, most everyone in Britain, for example, was active in a church. Today, fewer than four percent of Britons participate in ecclesial life. The situation is even worse in countries like Germany and Sweden where the numbers of professing Christians are now so low as to be almost uncountable.
While people in the United States are hungry for information about God and, while the country still permits open expressions of the Christian faith, Christian pollster George Barna estimates that perhaps four percent of Americans actually live in ways that could be considered biblical. Mark Mittelberg, in his book Building a Contagious Church: Revolutionizing the Way We View and Do Evangelism, says that if the question – “What are we trying to do?” – was asked in many churches, the response would be either a blank stare or an entire laundry list.
Here, where we have the freedom to live out the faith, many Christians are biblically illiterate and rarely share their belief in Christ with those who have never been introduced to Him. Spiritual interest is at a high level but so is bewilderment about what to believe and whom to trust. Christianity has been syncretized with everything from (what we used to call) the New Age to Buddhism to secularism.
Mittelberg states it plainly: “In most ministries [in the United States] very few lost people are being reached for Christ. Yet the words of Jesus in the Great Commission are seared in our minds: ‘Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age’ (Matthew 28:19-20). This mandate was given for all churches of all times, so it includes every one of us who is part of those congregations.”
We sit on the mission field. What will you do about all that you’ve just read? Brothers and sisters around the world are dying for the faith. The Lord may never place you in real harm’s way for the sake of the gospel but we each need to consider what risks we would be willing to take for the Lord Jesus Christ if He did. What risk will you take for the Lord this Holy Week? Will you take the risk to invite someone to consider Christ? Who will you bring to worship this Sunday? Who will you lift to the Lord in prayer?
To learn more about the persecuted church, you can visit: http://www.opendoors.com; http://www.worldwatchlist.us/world-watch-list-countries/; and http://www.aclj.org. Tooley’s full story on the release of Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians is found at http://juicyecumenism.com/2013/03/28/global-assault-on-christians/.
Featured photograph: Photo of Saeed Abedini with his wife, Naghmeh, and their two children (a six-year-old daughter and four-year-old son) by ACLJ (used with permission).