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Wife of U.S. pastor held in Iran pleads for his freedom

By Ashley Fantz, CNN
December 12, 2013 -- Updated 2136 GMT (0536 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Naghmeh Abedini says she felt she's had to fight Iran, and also her own government
  • Her husband's case was not brought up during recent nuclear deal talks with Iran
  • She said her husband has been tortured in prison and has been imprisoned for his faith

(CNN) -- The wife of an American pastor imprisoned in Iran pleaded with a House subcommittee on foreign affairs Thursday to do something to free her husband.

Naghmeh Abedini said that her husband, Saeed Abedini, went to Iran to build an orphanage but was imprisoned unjustly because of his Christian beliefs.

She said that when her family's "nightmare" began, she anticipated having to fight the Iranian government. But she feels shocked and deeply disappointed because she's had "to battle my own government."

U.S. President Barack Obama pushed for the release of Abedini and two other detained Americans -- Robert Levinson and Amir Hekmati -- when he spoke on the phone with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in September.

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Saeed Abedini is a U.S. citizen of Iranian birth. In January, he was sentenced to eight years in prison, accused of attempting to undermine the Iranian government and endangering national security by establishing home churches.

He had converted to Christianity from Islam and became a pastor in Idaho. He regularly made trips to Iran and was on a bus crossing from Turkey into Iran in the summer of 2012 when immigration officials took away his passport. He was later jailed. At the time of his detainment, an Iranian news agency reported that he would be released on bail.

Abedini's case was not brought up at recent negotiations on an interim nuclear deal with Iran.

In late November, National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden was asked why. She replied that the talks in Geneva, Switzerland, concerning the deal were "focused exclusively on nuclear issues."

Naghmeh Abedini told lawmakers Thursday that when U.S. and Iranian officials met to discuss the nuclear deal, the U.S. had a "perfect" opportunity to ask for the pastor's release. "I feel my husband has been abandoned," she said.

Iran's detention and torture of her 33-year-old husband constitutes an assault against U.S. national security, she said. The detention is "an experiment" because officials there are "curious" to see how strong Obama is, and whether he would take action immediately to free the pastor.

She held up a photo of herself and her two young children taken on their first day of school this year. She said that it was a heartbreaking moment to be without her husband and that as Christmas approaches, she is praying for her husband and praying that her government realizes "how far we've fallen" with negotiating with Iran without pushing more to secure her husband's freedom.

U.S. official: Obama, Rouhani discussed fate of three Americans

'Religious persecution is real'

In a written statement she gave to the subcommittee, she detailed her husband's ordeal. Her family says he is in a very dangerous prison because of his Christian faith.

His wife said that the orphanage he was in Iran to set up had the approval of the Iranian government. Between 2000 and 2005, her husband had previously gotten into trouble with Iran's government because he was talking about his Christian faith with Iranian Christians in their homes, she said. At that time, Iran was ruled under a different government.

It didn't make sense to her, and she finds it outrageous, that her husband would be held now for offenses related to religion.

"I am standing before you today because religious persecution is real," Naghmeh Abedini's statement read. "And until we stand up as one -- as Americans, as political leaders, and government officials, as people who have been endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights -- we will not truly embrace the responsibility that comes with that freedom."

Her father, who is still in Iran, has been able to visit the pastor, it says. That has allowed her to learn about how her husband had been treated and injuries he's suffered.

Before Thursday's hearing, she warned that her husband's health was deteriorating, and she talked Thursday about how he had been beaten and threatened in prison.

In her statement, she explained that he was initially held in the notorious Evin Prison in Tehran, where guards and interrogators beat him.

On November 3, the pastor was transferred to Rajai Shahr prison, the statement said, where he has been repeatedly robbed at knifepoint.

"At times he has awoken to find a knife-wielding prisoner standing over him at his bed."

Her husband has been beaten so badly that he could not stand, she said, and suffered internal bleeding. Nothing but the "hand of God" kept him alive, she said. "The Iranian regime sends prisoners to Rajai Shahr to disappear. It sends prisoners to Rajai Shahr to deny them their human rights. It sends prisoners to Rajai Shahr to die."

A few months ago, the pastor was given medication and his condition improved, she wrote.

A letter to the children

Naghmeh Abedini said her father showed her husband pictures of the couple's two children when he visited him in prison.

"Saeed would just stare at the pictures the entire time for the few short minutes they were able to talk," her statement says.

Once, her husband was able to compose a letter to his children.

"It is so hard and so heart breaking for me to see these pictures and to know that I am not there beside you as you grow," he wrote. "I came here to help the kids that did not have mommies and daddies, but my own kids lost their daddy."

On the eve of her testimony, the pastor's wife spoke to CNN's Jim Sciutto about the pain her family has endured.

"I think it's the worst torture to see your kids suffering and not being able to do anything," she said.

"My hope is -- I know it might be too much, hoping too much -- is having him home by Christmas. ... it will be a very difficult Christmas scene..." she said. "...it's not just for my husband, it's for my kids. Hopefully we will have daddy home for Christmas."

There are two other Americans who have disappeared in Iran or have been imprisoned.

Bob Levinson, a retired FBI agent, has been kept in the dark about him since he vanished on a business trip to Iran in March 2007.

President Rouhani has told CNN's Christiane Amanpour that the nation's officials don't know where the American is.

Levinson is in his 60s and suffers from diabetes.

Another American, Amir Hekmati, is a former U.S. Marine. He has been jailed in Iran since 2011, accused of being a CIA spy. Hekmati joined the Marines in 2001 out of high school. He finished his service four years later as a decorated combat veteran with tours in Iraq.

Other detained Americans

CNN's Jim Sciutto contributed to this report.

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