By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
TEHRAN/VIENNA (BosNewsLife)– Iran on Saturday, January 16, released Iranian-born American pastor Saeed Abedini along with Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian and two other Americans who had been held for years in Iranian prisons, BosNewsLife learned.
The other released Americans include Amir Hekmat, a former U.S. Marine, and Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari. All four are dual U.S.-Iranian citizens.
U.S. officials said the pastor and the three other Americans were to be flown from Iran to Switzerland on a Swiss plane and then brought to a U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, for medical treatment.
Separately, the family of American Matthew Trevithick said their son had been released Saturday, January 16, from Evin Prison in Tehran after he spent 40 days behind bars. A U.S official said Iran had freed the student separately from the four other Americans.
Iranian television was among the first Iranian media to annonce that the pastor and other Americans had been released from jail. “It is confirmed: Saeed is released from Iranian prison,” said the pastor’s wife, Naghmeh Abedini, in a brief statement. She also thanked people around the world who she said had been praying for her husband and his family.
According to Iran’s Fars News Agency, the pastor and three other Americans were ordered released in exchange for Iranian-Americans held in the United States on sanctions-related charges.
News of the prisoners exchange came while world leaders arrived in Vienna where the head of the United Nations nuclear agency said Iran has fulfilled its obligations, clearing the way for sanctions to end.
A statement by the Iranian prosecutor said that “based on an approval of the Supreme National Security Council and the general interests of the Islamic Republic, four Iranian prisoners with dual-nationality were freed today within the framework of a prisoner swap deal,” Fars reported.
Iran’s IRNA news agency said seven Iranians had been released by the United States.
They were identified as Nader Modanlo, Khosrow Afghani, Arash Ghahreman, Tooraj Faradi, Nima Golestaneh, Ali Saboonchi and Bahram Mecanic.
LONG PRISON TERM
Pastor Abedini, 35, had been held since July 2012 and journalist Rezaian, 39, since July 2014 on what critics described as trumped up charges.
Former U.S. Marine Hekmati, 32, spent more than four years in prison on spying charges following his arrest in August 2011 during a visit to see his grandmother. The circumstances of Khosravi-Roodsari were not immediately clear.
In January, 2013, the married pastor and father of two became another symbol of what friends said is ongoing persecution of Christians in the Islamic country when he was sentenced in Tehran to eight years imprisonment for “threatening the national security of Iran” through his leadership in Christian house churches.
Since that time, his family and friends had expressed concerns over reported mistreatment in prison by inmates and others, including beatings.
In one of those incidents, Abedini was punched in the face, leaving his eyes beaten black and blue, following death threats, though guards eventually intervened, according to Iranian Christians and rights activists.
“WORTHY TO SUFFER”
“They are only waiting for one thing…for me to deny Christ,” the pastor said at the time, referring to alleged death threats and mistreatment. “But they will never get this [abandoning of Christ] from me,” Abedini told his wife and supporters while in jail, BosNewsLife learned.
Abedini has said he “rejoices” that he is counted “worthy to suffer for Christ” and that he was encouraged by people “praying” and “standing” with him.
“The Lord has been reminding Saeed…that although he is pressed on every side, by the Grace of God he is standing strong in his faith in Jesus Christ and being a witness,” Christian friends explained.
In remarks obtained by BosNewsLife while he was in prison, Saeed said he went through an experience described in [Bible verse] 2 Corinthians 4:8-10:
“We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. Through suffering,
our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies.”
U.S. President Barack Obama had been criticized for not having done enough to demand the release of the pastor and other Americans in exchange for sanctions relief, though administration officials maintained they were never forgotten.
The pastor’s release came as an answer to prayers for his wife Naghmeh Abedini who had traveled around the world in recent years, campaigning for the release of her husband.
While her husband refused to deny his faith in exchange for his release, she recently warned Christians against befriending the world, seeking fame and popularity before all else.
“A main theme during my time of prayer and fasting seems to be becoming aware of our (my) friendship with the world as followers of Christ,” Naghmeh wrote on her Facebook website page.
“I am being made more and more aware of how we (including me) are allowing its subtle ways get to us and it is putting the body of Christ to sleep.”
Iranian Christians said they had been requesting prayers asking that “Saeed and his family will be reunited soon and will know God’s strength in the necessary adjustments.”
PRAYING FOR RECOVERY
They also urged prayers that “Saeed will quickly recover from his prison ordeal and find strength in God,” and that “other Christians detained in Iranian prisons will be encouraged and released soon.”
Iranian Christians made clear they haven’t given up hope that authorities will be more open to the Gospel, saying they pray that “all officials involved will love mercy, act justly, learn about Jesus and choose to follow Him.”
In the United States, faith leaders shared their concerns. “First of all, we thank God for this incredible victory,” said Reverend Patrick Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition group who has been leading prayer vigils and protests in Washington, D.C. and across the nation.
“We encourage everyone to pray for the Abedini family as Saeed returns home and they move forward with their lives,” he added.
Mahoney had been traveling to Turkey to meet with Iranian officials to work for the pastor’s release and also spoke in churches, prayed with the pastor’s wife and family and worked with members of the U.S. Congress.
CHRISTIANS REMAIN DETAINED
“What an incredible and glorious day for Pastor Saeed, Naghmeh, their two precious children and his entire extended family. We rejoice that he will soon be
home free to live his Christian faith without intimidation, persecution and harassment.”
However he also urged the world not to forget Christians who remain detained in Iran and other countries.
“In the midst of our celebration however, let us remember the millions of Christians who are still being persecuted, brutalized and tortured for their faith,” he said in a statement.
“Let Pastor Saeed’s release inspire the Christian community, President Obama
and the free nations of the world to be even a louder and bolder voice for religious freedom and human rights around the world. We can never be silent on these issues.”
The United State Commission on International Religious Freedom said last year that since 2010, Iran has arbitrarily arrested and detained more than 500 Christians throughout the Islamic nation, where officials have expressed concern about the spread of Christianity.
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