As Pope Francis prepares to meet Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Saturday, one of the world’s most famous examples of religious persecution is asking the pontiff to intercede on behalf of an American pastor imprisoned in Iran.
In a letter shared with CNN this week, Mariam Ibrahim, whose imprisonment for apostasy and adultery in Sudan sparked an international outcry, says a fellow Christian, Saeed Abedini, is facing “very similar injustice” in Iran.
“In my experience, the Vatican has not been content to let injustices thrive in a covering of silence,” Ibrahim wrote to the Pope. “Please use this timely opportunity to make Pastor Saeed’s situation known in the hearing of those with influence over him.”
Three Americans are known to be held in Iran: Washington Post journalist and dual Iranian-American citizen Jason Rezaian; Amir Hekmati, a former Marine; and Abedini, an Iranian-born pastor who immigrated to Idaho. In September, Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged that the United States is having talks with Iran that could include a possible prisoner swap.
Francis is expected to meet Rouhani on Saturday, the first meeting between the two men at the Vatican. The White House has reportedly asked the Pope to pressure Iran to release the American prisoners, including Abedini. The popular pontiff played a similar role in helping broker a detente between the United States and Cuba, leading to the release of Alan Gross, a U.S. government contractor, last December.
On Friday, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden met with Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, one of the Pope’s top aides and Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. According to brief statements released by the White House and bishops they discussed the protection of Christians in the Middle East and religious freedom, among other topics.
The White House requested the meeting, which lasted about an hour and came just days after the Supreme Court announced that it will hear an appeal by a group of nuns who are opposed to the contraception mandate in Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Despite their political differences, both sides said they want to building on the good will created by the Pope’s visit to the United States in September.
Ibrahim faced the death penalty in 2014 after being accused of marrying a Christian and converting to Christianity from Islam. She has insisted, though, that her mother had raised her as a Christian. Ibrahim credits the Pope, who she met at the Vatican immediately after her release, with helping convince the Sudanese government to end her imprisonment.
Ibrahim, her husband and two children now live in Virginia Beach, Virginia, after spending nearly a year in New Hampshire. She said he has started a nonprofit to advocate on behalf of other persecuted Christians.
“You gave a voice to me when I had none and intervened on my behalf until my eventual release in 2014,” Ibrahim wrote to the Pope. “I am writing you now on behalf of someone who is suffering a very similar injustice in the Islamic Republic of Iran and I hope that you will consider intervening on his behalf just like you did on mine.”
Abedini is a U.S. citizen of Iranian birth. In January, he was sentenced to eight years in prison, accused of attempting to undermine the Iranian government and endangering national security by establishing home churches.
He had converted to Christianity from Islam and became a pastor in Idaho. He regularly made trips to Iran and was on a bus crossing from Turkey into Iran in the summer of 2012 when immigration officials took away his passport. He was later jailed. At the time of his detainment, an Iranian news agency reported that he would be released on bail.
Ibrahim’s advocacy comes at a difficult time for the Abedini family. On Thursday, Christianity Today reported that Abedini’s wife, Naghmeh Abedini, will step back from public advocacy on her husband’s behalf.
In private emails to supporters, Naghmeh Abedini said she and her husband, who has been imprisoned in Iran since 2012, have faced marital difficulties.
“It is very serious stuff and I cannot live a lie anymore,” she wrote in one email. “So, I have decided to take a break from everything and seek the Lord on how to move forward.”