Saeed Abedini: More Than a News Story
One of the greatest bonds between people is the love of a mother for her son. I was vividly reminded of this recently when my wife and I had the opportunity of visiting with Saeed’s mother and sister. Zizi, Saeed’s sister, was a former student of mine, so Gloria and I have known her for nearly 6 years. But our recent visit with Zizi gave us the opportunity to meet Bebe, Saeed’s mother, for the first time. That first night with Bebe was very impactful. As a loving mother is want to do, she showed us past photos of Saeed. She also showed us videos he had made. One of the videos was of Saeed giving his testimony. If you have never heard Saeed’s testimony from his own mouth, it is worth watching (you can click here to view it).
Prison Life for Saeed
I had often wondered what prison conditions were like for Saeed. What does the prison look like? What does his day consist of? It hadn’t been that long since Bebe had been in Iran and was able to visit her son so I asked her about her experience of visiting Saeed in prison. At this point she broke down in tears and was unable to speak about it. As you can imagine, I felt terrible for even asking the question. It was at this moment that I realized we weren’t just talking about any person who was in prison. To her this was more than someone who is reported about in the news, more than even a Christian brother to be concerned about and pray for; this was her son! Of course I realized this before asking the question, but the emotional impact of her response brought home to me the personal pain Saeed’s family experiences with each passing day of his imprisonment. Once Bebe recovered, she not only shared the photos and videos that I mentioned above, she also showed me pictures of what it looks like inside of Rajai Shahr prison where Saeed is currently incarcerated. She showed me pictures of the kinds of cells that prisoners are held in and the deplorable sleeping conditions they face. She showed me a filthy latrine and shower, the kind that Saeed is made to clean each day. She also showed me pictures of the courtyard where most prisoners are able to go and get some sunshine and daily exercise. But Zizi told us that due to the dangers of mixing with other prisoners, Saeed is not able to get this daily dose of sunshine and exercise. I wanted to post several of the pictures that Bebe had showed me so I googled images of Rajai Shahr prison. I couldn’t find those particular photos, but I was horrified at the brutality of the pictures that I did find. Out of sensitivity for the family, and readers here, I will not post any.
The Closeness of Saeed’s Family
We spent 6 days with Bebe and Zizi. During that time I became impressed with just how close this family is to each other. Every day each family member skypes or calls each other. During the time we were with them, we were able to speak to each member of Saeed’s family. Zizi often speaks about the closeness of her family and how they have always loved and supported one another. Although I would never minimize the significance of family for those of us from the West, there is a difference between Western and Middle Eastern culture when it comes to family. In the West we are usually close to our parents and siblings. Fewer of us stay in close touch with cousins, nephews, nieces, etc. Many families in the USA are scattered across the country and only see each other once a year or less. Zizi explained to me that in Iran families stay very connected to one another. They usually live in the immediate vicinity of each other and they are in constant communication not only with immediate family members, but with aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. Important decisions such as marriage, and business are not just personal concerns, but the concern of the entire family (or clan). When someone in the West confronts an important life event or decision they will hope for the family’s blessing and support, but whether they get it or not they will usually go ahead with their own decision. Middle Eastern culture is very different. If the family does not support a marriage or some other decision, the individual will usually relent and do what is best for the family. What is best for the family comes before an individual’s desire. To put it succinctly: in Western culture it tends to be me first and then family; whereas in Middle Eastern culture it is family first and then me.
Your Family is Cursed
This realization about cultural differences heightens the personal tragedy for Saeed’s family. Although we can sympathize with Saeed’s family, and our loss of a family member is no less painful, yet we can not fully appreciate the effect of Saeed’s imprisonment on his family because of the difference in cultural dynamics. Let me give one example that Zizi shared with us. As mentioned above, in Iran not only are families close, they live close to one another and are involved with each other’s lives on a daily basis. When a family is scattered, it is considered to be a curse from God. Many of Saeed’s relatives have told Saeed’s father that the reason his family is scattered and experiencing so much turmoil is because he and his family converted to Christianity. Saeed’s family is considered cursed and unclean. As a result, the extended family has very little to do with Saeed’s family. Saeed’s father remains in Iran so that he can visit and maintain contact with his son. Although he has a lot of family still in Iran, Saeed’s father is virtually alone because he has been ostracized from the larger family unit. There is no support, no encouragement, only disdain and contempt.
Saeed’s family who once had a beautiful home in Iran and experienced the daily love and support of each other, has now been scattered to various places around the world. Imagine losing your home, being separated from your family, being forced to leave the country you love and becoming refugees in a foreign country. I say, “imagine,” but for those of us in the West, this is beyond anything we have ever experienced and therefore it is difficult to truly imagine it. Saeed has two sisters and a brother. Not only is he separated from them, but they are separated from each other. Zizi lives in the states, her other brother and sister are currently refugees in another country. Even Saeed’s parents are separated by the circumstances. Bebe, Saeed’s mother, has been warned not to come back to Iran or she will be arrested (We were told this was because she boldly witnessed to the guards about her faith in Christ!). This means she can no longer even visit her son in prison. Saeed’s father is the only remaining immediate family member who can stay in Iran. In spite of being separated from his dear wife and other children, and in spite of being ostracized by other family members, he stays. He stays because he is the only link between Saeed and the family and between Saeed and the outside world.
Saeed’s Family Reunion: Living in Hope
For those of us who have followed the story of Saeed’s imprisonment, we are aware of the loving and courageous efforts of his wife Nagmeh to obtain his release. While we were visiting with Bebe and Zizi, Nagmeh was in Germany speaking with government officials there about Saeed’s release. This past week, she, Bebe, and Zizi have traveled to Washington D.C. to appear before Congress and appeal that no deal be made for Iran’s nuclear program without an agreement to release the 4 Americans currently held in Iranian prisons. Nagmeh has eloquently spoken before governments, churches, and other organizations about her desire to see her family reunited and the toll it has taken on her children not to have their father at home. Here is yet one more family separation that I have not yet mentioned. Not only are Saeed’s children growing up without him, they are frequently without their mother as she answers the call to testify of her faith and to secure the release of her husband. Nagmeh herself related this difficulty as she spoke before Congress this week (click here to read). The article I am referencing begins: “The wife of a prominent Christian pastor imprisoned in Iran has described how her family has been ‘torn apart’ by their ordeal. But they have kept their faith, she explained adding: ‘Jesus hasn’t abadoned us.'”
While many continue to pray for Saeed’s release, I thought it important to be reminded, as I was through my visit with Saeed’s mom and sister, that it is more than a news event we are praying about. It is a real family who has not only experienced the pain of separation from Saeed, but also from each other. Our prayers are about a real man who is a husband, father, son, and brother. Without a change in regime, it is sad to think that Saeed’s family can never be reunited again in the their own beloved country. But I do pray and long for the day when they are all reunited again in the country of God’s choosing.
Dear Jesus, thank you for sustaining Saeed and his family, thank you for protecting him and for keeping his faith and that of his family strong. Thank you for the example that Saeed and his family are to many of us–love for You, love for each other, and love for their enemies. Thank you for what you have accomplished through Saeed’s imprisonment. Thank you for those who have been converted through Saeed’s witness, and his family’s witness. Dear Lord, pleae reunite Saeed and his entire family and please bring him home soon!