An Interview with Pastor Saeed Abedini, Former Hostage of Iran
by Rebecca Bynum (August 2016)
Photo credit: Christianity Today
Despite the danger, Saeed Abedini converted from Islam to Christianity and began working to spread the gospel through home churches (known as the underground church) while living in the Islamic Republic of Iran, where he was born. After his marriage to a US citizen, he himself became a naturalized citizen in 2010. Pastor Abedini traveled back and forth to his home country of Iran many times to help to build a government-approved orphanage in Rasht, Iran. He had promised the authorities he would not evangelize. In July of 2012, however, he was picked up and confined to house arrest at his parent’s home in Tehran. Then in September of 2012, he was arrested and taken to Evin prison where he was tortured and threatened with death unless he were to recant his Christian faith. In January 2013, he was tried and sentenced by Judge Pir-Abassi of Branch 26 of the Iranian Revolutionary Court to eight years in prison for “crimes against the national security of Iran” because of his leadership in establishing Christian home churches. Afterward, he was transferred from Evin to Rajai Shahr Prison where he remained until the morning of January 16, 2016.
Rebecca Bynum: Pastor Abedini, thank you for consenting to this interview.
Pastor Saeed Abedini: It is my pleasure.
Bynum: Can you describe what prison conditions were like and how you were treated?
Abedini: I can say as a saved Christian that I had this opportunity to see hell with my own eyes. You know Evin Prison is one of the most brutal prisons in the world. Thousands of people have been executed there and hundreds of people are given solitary confinement every day. And the interrogations are horrible. The way they treat people, it’s very painful. After the first week, I could not remember the faces of my children. The food, the treatment, it’s horrible and you know the interrogator over there is kind of like a judge. He has the power to kill you or do anything to you or even to set you free. Prisoners have no power whatsoever; they are completely helpless.
Bynum: Please take us back to the night of January 16th when you were freed from Iran, Can you tell us everything you remember from the time you were informed of your coming release to the time the plane took off from the airport in Tehran?
Abedini: It was seven in the morning, I was sleeping and one of the guards came and woke me up and asked me to come with him upstairs. And then they drove me to Evin Prison which was the first prison I went to and didn’t talk to me all the way there. So I didn’t know what was going on. And then they put me in the same room that I was in 3 ½ years before, before I got my sentences. There the leader of al Qaeda had almost beaten me to death, but for the Lord’s intervention, I was saved. So when they put me in the same room I remembered all that had happened to me there. But then I saw one of the interrogators and then they took us to the airport and told us in 20 minutes you will go to the plane, but this never happened.
Bynum: So how long did you stay in the airport and what did they tell you the delays were about?
Abedini: They told us that in 20 minutes, you’re going to leave the country, the plane and the pilot and everyone are ready, and then you’re going to be free, but when we arrived at the airport we saw one of the heads of the intelligence police who has connections with all the intelligence people in Iran. He was on the phone and he found out there was something wrong and they would not let us leave the country. They kept us in a closed room with no windows and we were there for hours and hours. After we had been there many hours, I started to evangelize because I knew I would be free and this would be the last time I see them. I started talking about Jesus and the need to repent and that Jesus died on the cross for you to be saved and so as I was talking, the intelligence officer acted surprised, like what are you talking about? But he was listening and some of the other guards were listening. Then I asked again, why are you not letting us go and he said, “another plane will come from Switzerland and until that plane takes off, we won’t let you go and if that plane doesn’t come we will have to take you back.” And I thought he was talking about the other prisoners in the prisoner swap, but he told me there is money there and also something about they couldn’t find someone’s wife, but I thought he was telling us a lie, because they always do just to mess with your mind and to weaken you psychologically. Psychological torture. But he wanted to show, see we are so strong in negotiation, we got money, we got many things. But I ignored him and didn’t think about it until later when I found out in the news that there was money involved and he was really talking about another plane with the money. At first when I was asked if there was money I said, no, but then when I started thinking about it, I remembered, he really told me the truth.
So it took about 20 hours or so. We slept there overnight and then the next night at about 10PM we boarded a private plane and were flown to Switzerland where we met the Prime Minister of Switzerland and then went to Germany.
Jay Soloman and Carol E. Lee reveal more in the Wall Street Journal:
The picture emerged from accounts of U.S. officials and others briefed on the operation: U.S. officials wouldn’t let Iranians take control of the money until a Swiss Air Force plane carrying three freed Americans departed from Tehran on Jan. 17. Once that happened, an Iranian cargo plane was allowed to bring the cash home from a Geneva airport that day.
One of the Americans released in January as part of the prisoner exchange, a pastor named Saeed Abedini, said he and other American prisoners were kept waiting at Mehrabad airport from Jan. 16 to the morning of Jan. 17. He said in an interview that he was told by a senior Iranian intelligence official at the time that their departure was contingent upon the movements of a second airplane. Mr. Abedini said he has been asked to testify next month before the House Foreign Relations Committee.
State Department officials have rebutted Mr. Abedini’s comments, saying the delay in his plane’s departure wasn’t related to a second plane or the payment of the $400 million. They said the delay was solely tied to U.S. efforts to locate the wife and mother of another imprisoned American, the Washington Post’s former Tehran bureau chief, Jason Rezaian, and ensuring they were allowed to board the Swiss plane as well.
Bynum: Let’s switch to something a little more uplifting. Can you tell us your personal story about how you first discovered Jesus?
Abedini: When I was 14 years old I was a very strong Muslim and I joined Hezbollah to attack Israel. An arm of Hezbollah came to my school and they chose boys they thought were talented to recruit, which shows they made a big mistake because I wasn’t talented at all. Then they asked us to join in some classes at the mosque which taught hatred of the Jews and how we had to attack Israel. They told me their plan for me was I should go to Israel and live and work there, completely become Israeli, and then after ten years they would send instructions on what would be the next step. But then I saw something wrong in them. I found out they were lying and weren’t the people they said they were. They put forward how they always obey the Koran, but in reality they didn’t.
I remained a very strong Muslim, always praying in the mosque and fasting. Then when I was twenty years old, I went into an Assembly of God Church, which was established before the revolution and was still open in Tehran at that time. And the pastor told me Jesus is Lord. And I thought, Jesus is not Lord, Jesus is a prophet only. So I made the decision to kill that Pastor and then I would kill myself as I had a bad depression at that time.
So the same night I was planning to kill him, I found that I couldn’t focus on my plan and I had no peace in my mind. So all the way from the church to my house, I started walking and I couldn’t stop my tears. I was crying and crying. I was so confused. I found both of them were strong – Islam and Christianity. One worships a human as a God, one rejects that and they were always at war, fighting each other, killing each other. There’s no peace in it, so it doesn’t work. And so I was so confused and thinking and crying for hours and hours. My whole t-shirt got wet, just soaked with my tears and when I got home, I was so tired and I for the first time I remember I prayed an honest prayer to God. “God just show me which way is true.” I had the Koran in one hand and the bible in the other hand and I kneeled down and cried out to God, “Just show me.” I knew half the population in the world is Christian and half Muslim. They both think they are right, so I was confused. I was just twenty years old and I had never asked this question of anyone.
So then I fell asleep and at around midnight, I heard a voice call my name and woke me up, “Saeed, Saeed, I’m coming back soon, coming back soon. Go to preach my gospel, my gospel.” I woke up, looked around, no one was there. So I thought: that was a dream. So, then I went back to sleep and two hours after that again the voice woke me up and called my name, “Saeed, Saeed, I’m coming back soon.” And I thought, okay I have depression, now the depression has turned into schizophrenia. I’m hearing and seeing something weird so I need to go to a psychiatrist tomorrow. So I made the decision to go to the psych doctor and so I slept and the third time I heard a huge voice which seemed to shake my room and I saw a huge light in the room. And again the voice called my name saying, “Saeed, I am coming back soon. Go to preach my gospel.” And I could see the light and for the first time in my life, I felt the strong presence of the Lord in my soul. I couldn’t deny it and I couldn’t handle it, actually. So I said, “Amen,” because I wanted him to just leave me alone because I couldn’t handle it, but when I said amen I looked inside the light and I could see Jesus. And when I saw Jesus I fell down like a dead person on my bed and I felt that he went to the mountain which was outside my window and at the bottom of the mountain was Evin Prison where I was taken later. So I fell down like a dead person on my bed and fell asleep and the day after that, I was another person. I saw that I didn’t hate Christians, I didn’t hate Jews or Israel. I went back to that church and I loved that pastor. That pastor baptized me later. And then I became a pastor myself and I started underground churches in 30 cities which became one of the largest underground churches in Iran.
Bynum: Can you tell us a little bit more about this church, was it in Tehran?
Abedini: The Assembly of God church in Iran was established before the revolution. After Khomeini came in he issued a fatwa which stated that all the churches established before the revolution were legal and could continue, but could not accept Muslims. But after the revolution they were not allowed to bring in new churches. Six months after they arrested me they shut down that church.
Bynum: Can you give us a brief overview of Christianity in Iran? Is it against the law to possess a New Testament for example? How dangerous is it to host a gathering of Christians in a home church?
Abedini: It’s very dangerous. About one thousand members of my church have been arrested, interrogated and some of them went to jail. They all have open cases, so if they are caught attending an underground church or engaging in evangelism, they can be put in prison for a long time. Legally, according to parliamentary law in Iran, if a Muslim becomes a Christian it is not against the law, but according to Islamic law, which is stronger in Iran, the punishment is death, so you don’t know what will happen after they arrest you. I know there are at least 100,000 Muslim converts to Christianity who are not connected to anyone, they are just isolated. They just read by themselves and pray by themselves, so they are trying to keep their salvation to themselves, because if the authorities find out they are Christian, they are not allowed to go to University, they might lose their jobs, Thousands have left the country and become refugees in Turkey and they are trying to come to the United States, but it’s a long process, four or five years. Muslims seem to come to the US easily after one or two years, but for Christians it is much harder. They have to wait five, six, seven years in Turkey and some of them give up and go back to Iran.
Bynum: How are Armenian Christians (the largest Christian minority) treated in Iran? Are they required to conform to any dhimma-type laws? Are they allowed to build new churches, for example? Do they live in their own towns where they might have some autonomy?
Abedini: We had several hundred thousand Armenians in Iran, but most of them left the country after the Revolution because of the pressure of government. We have many Syrian Christians too, but they are so scared to evangelize or to invite Muslims into the church, so they are quite isolated there and also they speak their own language, Armenian or Syrian, which adds to their isolation. It’s not really a good situation, but they do have their own member in Parliament and so they have some communication with the government. They’re situation is easier than for people like me who were Muslim and became Christians.
Bynum: Finally, do you have any words to say to the American Christian community?
Abedini: Yes, as a country we are living through a very serious and sensitive time and most American churches are sleeping. We need a revival, a Christian revival. And I believe if spiritually and politically we don’t wake up, we’re going to lose our country forever. I believe everything is led by the spirit and if we have a revival we can have changed lives. We also need leadership in the Middle East. There is the rise of Islam in the Middle East and the churches are sleeping so they don’t counter it. If it is not stopped in the Middle East, it will rise in Western countries and on American soil. And we don’t realize how serious it is even though in the last five years, the world has changed a lot. We see ISIS and al Qaeda and what radical Islam is doing, but the problem is bigger than that. The Iranian government is stronger than ever before and the Prime Minister of Israel said that the Persian Empire has been revived. I think that’s true. Inside they have shut down all the protests and outside they have the whole world dancing to their tune. Inside and outside they won and so they will get stronger and stronger. Everyone in the world is focuses on ISIS and al Qaeda, but they forget there is a more established and firm radical Islamic government in Iran.
They have been successful to shut down the underground churches, and now with technology they can find us easily – smartphones, connections, cameras everywhere in the streets. Once they sold us bibles and we were so happy to have them, but later we found that inside them were chips so they could locate us. They sold us bibles, we gave them to the churches and then they could find all the churches. Once we had a conference for pastors in Turkey and when we came back the 200 pastors that I trained were all arrested. Later we found out that the intelligence police in Turkey have a good relationship with their counterparts in Iran and so they gave them all the names. So we are fighting for our lives, the lives of our churches, in our own country and fighting with the intelligence services in other countries. It’s very hard.
So I ask the American churches to pray for the persecuted churches and for a revival to come back to the United States. I believe it has started. You know, the country I see today is very different from five years ago before I went to prison and the sign for me was when I spoke to Americans then, they were not interested in politics, they didn’t even know where Iran was on a map. They knew there was some area called Middle East, but that’s about it. But when I came back, everyone was talking about politics and very involved and they are finding out that there is something wrong and there is need of change, but they are looking for political change. I believe that politics can’t fix all our problems, only God can fix all our problems and only God can change us and our country, but he always uses people. So when I see everyone interested in politics, I think they’ve found out that in their hearts, there is a big need of change. You start looking to fix it and find some way out, so if pastors can lead the way toward God that is going to be a revival, I think.
Bynum: That’s true. I don’t think there is a way to counter a religion like Islam without a stronger religion like Christianity. I hope Christianity wins in the end.
Abedini: Christianity already won on the cross. Christ was resurrected from the dead, he won. It’s finished. So everyone who wants to be on the side of the winner with Jesus, we will get that resurrection in our lives. And then that resurrection comes into our lives and then our communities and our cities and our country. We saw it before, like two hundred years ago both here and in other countries, but it depends on us as to how much we really want to lead that revival with God.
Bynum: That’s true and do you think that religion will kindle a cultural revival of the spirit that will be able to stand up to Islam? Europe is being so cowed.
Abedini: No I don’t believe religion can save us, not even Christianity. I believe we all need a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It starts with our hearts and dependence and belief in what God did on the cross. And when we have that personal relationship with God, the Holy Spirit will lead us in a pure and clean life – a holy life. And then our lives will be changed. And when our personal life is changed our family life will change, our communities and our country will change. It all starts with each person’s personal life. When we pray our country will change because the only person who writes history and who chooses the government and chooses the king is God. God is the person who writes the history. When we are connected with our hearts to God, he’s going to use us to write our history and we’re going to be winners, but when we are not with God, he’s going to write our history and it will not be good for us. It depends on how much we are connected and have a personal relationship with our king, lord and savior, Jesus Christ.
Bynum: Thank you so much. This has been a wonderful interview.
Abedini: Thank you.
Rebecca Bynum is New English Review's managing editor. She also serves as advisor to the American Mid-East Coalition for Trump. Her latest book is The Real Nature of Religion, published by New English Review Press.
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