Jacob Abedini will turn seven years old on March 17th. His one birthday wish is the safe return of his father, Pastor Saeed Abedini, who has been imprisoned in Iran for the past two and a half years.
A dual citizen of Iran and the United States, Abedini was sentenced to eight years in prison on January 27, 2013 for “undermining Iran’s national security” through his work as a Christian minister in Iran’s house church movement. Since then, his wife Naghmeh and their two children have been raising awareness about his plight from their family home in Boise, Idaho. Their efforts were rewarded last week when President Obama visited them while traveling through the city. Naghmeh has written the president numerous letters since her husband’s sentencing. In the most recent, she wrote, “My heart leapt with hope when I heard that you would be visiting my hometown of Boise, Idaho. Since the Iranian government took my husband … I have been praying and wanting to meet with you.”
During his visit, President Obama assured the Abedini family he would do everything in his power to secure Pastor Saeed’s release, and promised Jacob he would do his best to bring his father home for his birthday.
The president’s visit was no doubt a great comfort to Abedini’s family, and it certainly brought greater awareness to the pastor’s plight. But the visit also highlights two great concerns: the first that, despite his willingness to help, President Obama may not be able to deliver on his promise. He has already spoken on the phone with Iran’s President Rouhani about the country’s prisoners of conscience, including Abedini, but his efforts to obtain the pastor’s release have been fruitless. The U.S. and Iran are currently embroiled in nuclear negotiations, the results of which could affect regional security for years to come. In the midst of such diplomatic gymnastics, the President will hardly take a hardline stance that might further damage already-hostile relations with Tehran, even for the noble cause of freeing a wrongly accused man.
The second concern raised by the Abedini case is that Pastor Saeed’s situation, though undoubtedly horrible, is far from the exception, and thus it is doubtful that Tehran will change its tune regarding religious freedom simply because one man has warranted massive attention. In January 2014, Robert P. George, the Chairman of the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom, stated that “The government of Iran continues to engage in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, including prolonged detention, torture, and executions based primarily or entirely upon the religion of the accused.” George highlighted Abedini’s case as an example of these “egregious violations.”
However, a year has passed since those remarks, and Abedini remains in jail, subject to regular beatings. Iran, a predominantly Shia Muslim nation, has been deemed a “Country of Particular Concern” by the United States’ International Religious Freedom Report, put out every year by the State Department, but the rhetorical condemnations have had little effect on the regime’s treatment of religious minorities. The U.S. has historically had a weak international religious freedom policy, largely relying on humanitarian urges to free prisoners of conscience instead of instituting any uniform or consistent approach. But a firmer approach is likely needed to handle such violations, especially when the victims are citizens of the United States.
Fortunately, the U.S. Senate recently confirmed Rabbi David Saperstein as the new Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, after the position was vacant for a year. The fate of Pastor Saeed, and numerous other prisoners of conscience, rests on Ambassador Saperstein’s ability to make international religious freedom a key concern for U.S. foreign policy. In doing so, he must walk a delicate line between further damaging relations with states already at odds with the U.S. and providing tacit acceptance of the human rights abuses carried out by those same states.
One hopes that President Obama will be able to fulfill his promise to the Abedini family—but the president’s words, comforting as they may be, will remain hollow until the U.S. is able to formulate and institute a cohesive response to international violations of religious freedom.
Kelly Thomas is a senior at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and editorial assistant for The American Conservative.