If the world hates you,
be aware that it hated me before it hated you.
During a press briefing on January 15, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney had no answer when a reporter asked if the president of the United States were aware that a Christian who is an American citizen is being held prisoner in Iran. Obviously the president cannot know everything, but this situation is so extraordinary that most people would expect not only that the president would know about it but also that the president would have a strong statement to make on the subject. Saeed Abedini is an American citizen and a Christian. He was arrested during a visit to Iran during which he was helping Iranian Christians build an orphanage. He traveled to Iran subsequent to an agreement with Iran’s intelligence police that authorized him to travel inside Iran and to work on the orphanage. Charges against Abedini have not been made publicly available, but they are known to accuse him of being a threat to national security. The attorney who will represent him in Iran was only given access to his case file during the past week, even though the case is scheduled for trial on Monday, January 21. Members of the US Senate and the US House of Representatives have requested that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton work through her international contacts to request that Iran set this American citizen free and clear him of charges that are obviously false, but she has taken no action. There has been no statement of support for Saeed Abedini from either the President or the Secretary of State.
American Christians wonder why.
Most American citizens believe that our nation stands for the broadest possible interpretation of religious liberty. That idea grows out of the First Amendment to our Constitution which says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In the USA we do not believe in having a state religion, and we do not believe that the government should inhibit, prohibit or punish the exercise of religion. We do not believe a citizen should be prevented from or punished for actions and words consistent with the teachings of his faith. (There have been some very limited deviations from that principle, mostly due to activities alleged to be religious which are nevertheless themselves an assault on basic human rights. We would, for example, draw the line at allowing parents to burn their children on altars as sacrifices to any god.)
Representatives of the USA have promoted this same freedom around the world. When the United Nations was first organized, one of its earliest accomplishments was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which includes strong statements mandating religious liberty. Wherever the government of the USA has had any influence, it has historically spoken out for religious freedom. Therefore, it makes perfect sense for Christians in the USA to expect that when a US citizen is arrested for being a Christian while visiting some other country, the administration of the USA would speak and act strongly to persuade that country to release this citizen.
It startles and disturbs American citizens to discover that our government is doing nothing at all to help an American citizen arrested for being a Christian, accused of being a threat to national security because he is a Christian, and put on trial before a judge with the reputation of imprisoning human rights attorneys for being just as much a threat to national security as their clients. Why would the government of the USA be so reticent to speak in this case?
The answer may lie in an issue closer to home. At present, more than forty suits have been filed against the federal government seeking relief from the employer mandate of the Affordable Care Act on the grounds that it infringes on religious liberty. More than forty cases are in the federal court system right now, and they all hinge on whether the federal government has properly defined the boundaries of religious liberty. The federal government is standing firmly behind a regulation that defines a “religious employer” and the government contends that First Amendment protection applies only to a “religious employer.” The government has further stated in arguments before the courts that nothing religious happens in a for-profit business and that therefore no owner of a for-profit business can claim to be expressing his faith in the course of operating that business. The definition of a “religious employer” is clear. It applies to houses of worship and nothing more.
This definition might make sense if our Constitution protected only “freedom of worship.” If the Constitution only protected our right to attend any church we like without the threat of being arrested, then the federal regulation defining a “religious employer” would make sense. If that were the case, we might understand why our President and our Secretary of State do not speak out and take all the actions within their power to influence Iran to release Saeed Abedini and drop all charges against him. After all, Saeed Abedini was helping to build an orphanage as an act shaped by his faith. Building an orphanage is not an act of worship inside a building dedicated to worship. If freedom of worship is the issue, then maybe Saeed Abedini belongs in prison, because he was not engaged in worship. He was engaged in actions motivated and directed by the tenets of his faith. Because our President and our Secretary of State are not making any statements or taking any action, we must conclude that these two very powerful leaders in our country actually believe that our Constitution protects only “freedom of worship,” and that our moral leadership around the world is also limited to “freedom of worship.”
Christians must pray for wisdom in this matter. As we pray that God will act to turn the heart of the judge and the national leadership of Iran toward the release of Saeed Abedini, we must pray with heavy hearts. We must also pray for our own country and for our own religious liberty. We must bow our heads and our hearts before God and ask him for guidance and strength to fight a battle we never thought we would need to fight. We thought that the First Amendment protected our liberty to live our faith without interference from our government, but we cannot assume that protection anymore.
If anyone asks our President or our Secretary of State or our Secretary of Health and Human Services if they believe in First Amendment protection of religious liberty, every one of them will answer “Yes!” They will surely think they are speaking the truth. Unfortunately, if the definition of “religious employer” in the regulations implementing the Affordable Care Act is allowed to stand, the meaning of the First Amendment is redefined and our freedom to live and speak our faith in the USA is severely restricted.
What should we do?
Pray for Saeed Abedini and for his attorney in Iran. Pray that Saeed will be released and that all the charges against him will be dropped. Pray for Iran to stop considering that any religion but Islam is a threat to national security. Pray that no matter what happens, Saeed will be strengthened in his faith and his testimony for Christ. Pray that in our prayers we may be joined with Saeed in his suffering and his testimony.
Then pray for the USA. Pray that our President and his administration will be enlightened to understand that the regulation defining a “religious employer” is a breach of First Amendment protection of religious liberty. Speak out when people talk about these issues. Help others understand that whether you are Hindu or Muslim or Christian or atheist, this freedom is essential to all. Pray for God to guide your words as he shapes your heart in order that the discourse surrounding this issue is loving, respectful and directed by the Holy Spirit, not by anger or fear. Pray that the USA will continue to be a beacon for the freedom God gave to all of us in the Constitution. Pray. Pray that no matter what happens, the faith and the testimony of each Christian will be strengthened by the work of the Holy Spirit. Pray that in our prayers Saeed may be joined with us in our suffering and our testimony.
For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ
not only to believe on him,
but also to suffer for him.