Reading the news of the trial and conviction of Saeed Abedini is horrifying. To American eyes, it is shocking. American minds cannot readily absorb that such events can possibly be real. It is the twenty-first century. Human beings have come a long way from the days of tribal violence and social stratification that produce stories such as this.
To American Christians, it all sounds illegal and unfair.
To the government of Iran, it all makes perfect sense.
The government of Iran is an Islamic republic. When Americans heard that Saeed Abedini was considered a threat to national security, American ears rejected the idea, because Abedini is not an employee of some government hired to find out the military and political weak spots of Iran which an enemy government could exploit in an attempt to conquer and subdue Iran. That is the American image of a spy or a threat to national security. That image has nothing to do with the Iranian image of the threat posed by Saeed Abedini.
In the USA people are accustomed to believe that the government does not have and should not have any concern with someone’s religion. US citizens believe in any god or no god without governmental involvement. This is because the USA has no state religion, and as long as the Constitution remains the foundation of US government, the US never will have a state religion. In Iran, however, the state religion is Islam. As a natural consequence of that fact, Islam is protected by the state. It has preference over all other religions. Islamic religious leaders have power in the political functions of the state.
What’s more, Islam teaches that there can be no such thing as separation of church and state. Islam teaches that the life of an individual or the life of a state simply does not have a secular component. To Muslims, there is no such division in life as the separation of sacred and secular. Islam is all and in all.
This is the root of a conviction that when someone betrays or turns away from Islam, the state is at risk. When someone in Iran listens to Christian teaching and responds to it, Islam teaches that this person has rejected Allah and become an infidel. The Iranian government views conversion from Islam to Christianity the same way American citizens viewed the recruitment of spies by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Everyone could understand that someone from the USSR could spy for the USSR, but it was the deepest sort of betrayal for an American citizen to fall to that level. That is the way Iranian Muslims view Iranian converts to Christianity. That is why Saeed Abedini is viewed with such revulsion by the Iranian government.
Saeed Abedini is an American Christian today, but he was born in Iran and grew up Muslim. As an adult, he converted to Christianity. He immediately began to work with the house churches in Iran. Saeed Abedini not only rejected Islam and turned away, but he led others to do the same thing. He is a convert from Islam who led other people to convert from Islam. To the religious leadership in Iran, he was like a malignant infection that needed to be cured. The Ayatollah Khomeini would have been required to sign the papers authorizing Saeed’s sentence, and it is easy to imagine that the Ayatollah signed with both a heavy heart for having lost this young man and a real feeling of vengeance against him for poisoning the faithful with his Christian evangelism.
This activity began in the year 2000, and at the time Saeed began his work, the government of Iran was not engaged in suppression of the house church movement. The religious teaching about the perfidy of conversion from Islam was the same then as now, but the government did not at that time take action against Christian house churches. The movement was low-profile, and likely the government believed it would fade away. It did not.
Iran officially protects religious liberty, but to Islamic Iranian thinking, the term religious liberty has a very different meaning from the one Americans use. For example, the government of Iran does not usually view a Christian as a threat if the Christian was born into a Christian family and reared in that family’s Christian church. In that situation, Iranian Muslims view the family as “people of the book” and consider them non-threatening. They expect a family to bring up children in the family faith. This concept holds true in many countries where Islam is the dominant faith. Iran believes that it protects religious liberty when it tolerates churches and the Christian upbringing of the children of church members.
On the other hand, a Muslim who converts to Christianity is considered a threat. Churches with ancient traditions in the country, such as Armenian Christians, are registered with the government as legitimate religions and are represented in the legislature, but churches that develop as the spontaneous result of conversions from Islam are considered to be threats to the national security. Despite protections for religions with long-standing traditions in Iran, the Iranian government does not protect the right to change from one religion to another. The fact that the house church movement in Iran is currently experiencing dramatic growth is likely the reason that the government has increased its activity against Christians who are part of that movement. The house churches represent converts, and converts are enemies of the state. Iran is a signatory to the UN Declaration of Human Rights, but Iran has faced down pressure from the UN more than once over its unique interpretation of that document.
Saeed Abedini did not go to Iran in 2012 as a house church evangelist. In 2008, he had been arrested for his work in that activity. After he agreed to stop evangelistic work with house churches, Iran’s intelligence police agreed to permit him to visit Iran from time to time in order to continue helping to build a non-religious orphanage. Saeed’s trip to Iran in 2012 was for the purpose of working on the orphanage. However, by this time, the house church movement in Iran had achieved a momentum that was being perceived as a threat, the president of Iran had declared Christianity to be a menace, and Saeed’s work with the house church movement in 2000 was re-examined. He was pulled off a bus on September 26, 2012, and charged with being a threat to national security. After a one-day trial on January 21, 2013, he was convicted and sentenced to eight years imprisonment in Evin prison, one of Iran’s harshest facilities. His future is grim, indeed.
Around the world, Christians under persecution suffer terrible indignities, not to mention real torture. It is reasonable to expect that this will be the lot of Saeed Abedini. Open Doors International has contacts in many countries that pass on the prayer requests of the persecuted Christians. These Christians do not usually ask that we pray for their rescue; they ask that we pray for their testimony. Some reports of Saeed Abedini’s trial suggest that he was able to give a faithful testimony during his very brief trial, and his life story suggests that he will make a faithful testimony during his imprisonment.
Saeed’s story brings to mind the story of Joseph, imprisoned on a false charge, who was a blessing to everyone in the prison. The Bible tells us that “the LORD was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love.” (Genesis 39:21) The apostle Paul was imprisoned frequently. Whenever Paul was in prison, he used the situation as an opportunity to testify to his faith. Given the opportunity to speak, he said to men with the power of life and death over him, “I pray to God that not only you but also all who are listening to me today might become such as I am—except for these chains.” (Acts 26:29) We pray that the Lord will be with Saeed the same way. May God grant him faith, courage, health and strength. May he persevere in hope. We also pray that worldwide efforts, including numerous petitions for his release, will have success according to God’s purposes. When one suffers, we all suffer with him. Keep Saeed Abedini in your prayers.