About three dozen people gathered on the Capitol steps Sept. 26 to pray for a man they have never met who is languishing in a prison on the other side of the world.
Pastor Saeed Abedini, 33, a naturalized Iranian-American Christian living in Idaho, was arrested one year to the day earlier while visiting Iran. His crime was building an orphanage. Even though the project had been approved by the authorities, because he is a Christian, he was "undermining the Iranian government." He was sentenced to eight years in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison, where he has been tortured and withheld medical treatment – and where, says his wife, Naghmeh, he has helped convert more than 30 people to Christianity.
Naghmeh has been far from a victim in all of this. In addition to raising their two young children alone, she has spoken out on her husband’s behalf and addressed the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
Vigils were to be held at more than 100 locations worldwide on the anniversary of Saeed’s imprisonment. Little Rock’s was planned by Jill Averitt, wife of Alex Averitt, one of two pastors of North Little Rock’s Journey Church.
Jill Averitt said she first became interested in Christian persecution about two years ago. Also a mother of two young children, she and Naghmeh have much in common.
"I’m a mom, and I’m a pastor’s wife," she said, pausing to collect herself after becoming a little emotional, but just a little. "And I think that’s one of the first things that drew me to their story and why I kept following along and praying, is that I just imagined how that must feel."
Nov. 3 is the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. On Oct. 27, a prayer meeting will be held at Camp Peniel north of Morrilton, according to Kevin McMahan, the other pastor of Journey Church. He is a volunteer "bridgebuilder" with Open Doors, a group dedicated to serving persecuted Christians.
That prayer is needed because Saeed is far from the only person suffering for his faith worldwide. In fact, he’s not even the only American. Kenneth Bae, a missionary to China who routinely led tourist groups into North Korea, was sentenced earlier this year to 15 years’ labor by the North Korean government for "hostile acts."
Open Doors says it has identified more than 65 countries where Christian persecution exists. Killings of Syrian Christians have risen as a result of that country’s unrest. In September, suicide bombers with a Taliban group attacked a Pakistani church, killing more than 80 worshippers. The group Human Rights Watch reported that at least 42 churches were attacked in Egypt between Aug. 14 and Aug. 22. Christians in Nigeria have faced a steady wave of attacks in recent months.
This worldwide persecution of Christians — often but not exclusively by Muslims — has received relatively little media attention and generated little outrage. Responses by American policymakers have been restrained. The subject warranted all of a single sentence — a reference to that Pakistani church — in President Obama’s speech to the United Nations this past week, though he spoke more generally about sectarian violence. I’m going to have faith that he and other elected officials are working behind the scenes more aggressively than they have done in public.
Supposedly, Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, is more "moderate" than his predecessors. He did say that the Holocaust was real, which was a welcome change from the previous president, but I need to see further proof. He could start by releasing Saeed Abedini from prison and thanking him for building that orphanage.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His email address is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.