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American pastor arrested in Iran to face 'hanging judge' next week

Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-born U.S. citizen, will face trial in Iran next week on charges of apostasy. (Source: ACLJ) Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-born U.S. citizen, will face trial in Iran next week on charges of apostasy. (Source: ACLJ)
Saeed's wife and two children, ages 6 and 4, reside in Idaho. (Source: ACLJ) Saeed's wife and two children, ages 6 and 4, reside in Idaho. (Source: ACLJ)

(RNN) - An Iranian-born U.S. citizen, sitting in a Tehran jail, will face what his lawyers are calling a "sham trial" next week on charges of apostasy.

The American Center for Law and Justice says Saeed Abedini, a Christian pastor, is charged with "actions against the national security of Iran" for his work leading an underground house church movement in Iran.

Abedini, who became a U.S. citizen in 2010, will face trial Monday in front of one of Iran's so-called "hanging judges," branded so because of the tough sentences he hands down, including execution by hanging.

The charges, lawyers for the family said, stem from the year 2000 when Saeed, now 32, converted from Islam to Christianity.

According to a 2011 State Department report on religious freedom, Iran's constitution "does not provide for the rights of Muslim citizens to choose, change or renounce their religious beliefs," and that "conversion from Islam is deemed apostasy, which is punishable by death." Trying to convert Muslims to another faith can also be punishable by death.

"The pattern is people like him are treated almost like political criminals, because the way Iran sees it, if you don't believe in their version of Shia Islam, you're somehow a threat," said Jordan Sekulow, executive director with the ACLJ.

Abedini's Iranian lawyer received his trial date and case only a week before the scheduled court appearance.

His family in Iran is currently under house arrest. His wife and children live in Idaho and retained lawyers with the ACLJ to represent them.

The ACLJ says the charges are less reflective of his conduct and more indicative of a crackdown on religious minorities by Iran's Revolutionary Guard.

"He's spent more than half his life in Iran. He understands what it means to be a Christian there," Sekulow said. "Things got much tougher with the Revolutionary Guard … they've really seized control, clamped down on the religious minority."

In 2009, Abedini was cleared to do humanitarian work in Iran after being previously detained and prevented from leaving the country for two months. Sekulow says the government threatened to bring charges against him, but he agreed to stop his work with the underground churches. They then agreed to let him travel throughout the country as needed.

Since then, he's taken nine trips into Iran to visit family and work on building an orphanage - with no religious affiliation - without issue until he was placed under house arrest in July 2012 and full arrest in September, Sekulow said.

"This is not a dissident political activist. He was going through the process he was supposed to in Iran," Sekulow said.

"I know people will look and say 'Why go back?' But the truth is this wasn't a random trip. He'd been doing it [without incident]. His wife wasn't saying 'Oh, please don't go.'"

Meanwhile, Abedini says he has been abused in prison and told he will die for his faith.

In a letter released Jan. 10, the imprisoned pastor wrote "One day I am told I will be freed and allowed to see my family and kids on Christmas (which was a lie) and the next day I am told I will hang for my faith in Jesus. One day there are intense pains after beatings in interrogations, the next day they are nice to you and offer you candy."

Due to prison conditions, Sekulow says even a short jail sentence can become a death sentence.

"Every day that goes by is important and every day he's alive is important," Sekulow said.

On Jan. 11, the State Department made its first comments on the case, expressing "serious concerns" about Abedini's fate.

The ACLJ, along with a growing number of Congressional members, have called on the State Department to do more, including advocate for his full and unconditional release.

A letter addressed to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and signed by several members of the U.S. Senate urges the State Department to "exhaust all efforts to secure Mr. Abedini's prompt return."

"Saeed's efforts to provide humanitarian relief and exercise fundamental human rights should be applauded not condemned. We should not stand idly by while the Iranian regime arbitrarily persecutes a U.S. citizen who has committed no crime," the letter reads.

Clinton received a similar letter from members of the House of Representatives.

The White House has so far had no official statement on the case. When asked during the daily press briefing on Tuesday, Press Secretary Jay Carney said he didn't have a statement but would "take the question."

"The president is obviously updated on a variety of issues with regards to Iran, but I don't have anything specific for you on that," he said.

More than 112,000 people have signed the ACLJ's petition campaigning for the release of Abedini.

Another pastor, Youcef Nadarkhani, an Iranian citizen, spent three years in jail on charges of apostasy after Iran claimed he converted to Christianity from Islam. He was initially sentenced to death after refusing to recant his Christian faith, but was released in September 2012 after international pressure, including a call for his release by the White House and State Department.

Nadarkhani was re-arrested on Christmas Day, but released shortly after the New Year when media began reporting the story and international pressure grew calling for his release.

Whether Abedini will be released may depend largely on the same strategy. Sekulow says the ACLJ has been working on the case since July, but only recently went public with it after behind the scenes efforts failed to produce results.

"We don't just talk about this because we want their story out there. We talk about this because it's the only proven way to really influence a situation like this," Sekulow said.

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