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Iran's new leader urged to release Christian political prisoners
Anti-persecution charity wants President Hassan Rouhani to stand by his promise to free those in jail for their beliefs.
A Christian charity and a believer in jail in Iran are calling on Iran's new president to stand by his promise to release political prisoners. Anti-persecution charity Christian Solidarity Worldwide and Pastor Saeed Abedini wants President Hassan Rouhani to be held to account.
When the 64 year-old was inaugurated in August 2013, his campaign slogan "moderation and wisdom" continued to be a theme, promising reform, of working to ease sanctions, of helping to free political prisoners, of guaranteeing civil rights and a return of "dignity to the nation". From his cell at Evin Prison in Tehran, Pastor Abedini, an Iranian who's been living in the US, has written to the newly appointed president asking for justice so he can return to his wife and children in America.
Pastor Abedini was arrested in 2012, when he returned to his homeland to open orphanages and serve the local community. He was detained under national security concerns and sentenced to eight years in prison. But a number of anti-persecution charities claim he was imprisoned because of his faith. In August, a court appeal to have his sentence reduced was rejected and there's concern for his health as family members said he's fainting from severe amounts of pain from internal injuries believed to have come from intense beatings while in prison.
In his letter Pastor Abedini said:
"Please take immediate action... and do not let me and a lot of people in my ward become the victims of the fire that extremists have made, those who have turned Iran into a vortex of crisis.
"Considering the fact that I came to Iran to serve the orphans, please do not let them make my children orphans and my wife without a guardian."
He also outlined the treatment he'd received while inside prison. He said:
"During this extremely difficult, exhausting and tormenting period that cannot be described here, I was in agony from the severity of stomach bleeding and other internal diseases as a result of terrible condition in the detention."
The American Center for Law and Justice has launched its biggest ever campaign and is encouraging believers around the world to write to President Rouhani and call for Pastor Abedini's release. It wants to co-ordinate 52,000 letters - a thousand for every week Mr Abedini has served in prison so far.
Its Chief Counsel, Jay Sekulow, said:
"This is a critical time for this U.S. citizen who has been illegally imprisoned in one of Iran's most dangerous prisons for nearly one year now.
"With Pastor Saeed's direct appeal to the Iranian president and our global letter-writing campaign to urge him to release Pastor Saeed, the new Iranian president can send an important message to the world - that his promise of moderation can be fulfilled by releasing Pastor Saeed from prison.
"This American pastor has done nothing wrong - imprisoned only because of his Christian faith. We call on Iran to release him so he can return to his family."
Over 600,000 people signed a petition earlier this year calling for the release of Pastor Abedini but their voices went unheard. US Secretary of State John Kerry has now joined calls for his release.
"The United States is also deeply concerned about the fate of dual U.S. citizens Amir Hekmati (arrested on allegations of spying) and Saeed Abedini.
"On September 26th, Mr. Abedini will have spent a year in detention in Iran.
"He was sentenced to eight years in prison on charges related to his religious beliefs. "President Rouhani has shared in his speeches and interviews over the past few months his hope and vision to improve the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran's relationship with the world.
"We urge the Iranian Government to release Mr. Hekmati and Mr. Abedini so that they may be reunited with their families as safely and as soon as possible.
"These men belong at home with those who love them and miss them."
Also, a musician called Shahin Lahouti was arrested last October during a raid on a prayer meeting. Seven others were detained with him but they have since been bailed - Mr Lahouti is currently being held in Adel-Abad Prison in Shiraz in Iran, serving a two and a half year sentence on what charities are calling 'false political charges'. Christian Solidarity Worldwide is now calling on believers to write to the president to ask for all the charges to be dropped.
This researcher from CSW's Middle East Desk - who can't be named for security reasons - told Premier's Victoria Laurence on the News Hour there has been some positive signs coming from the president:
It's hoped the possibility of better relations between Iran and the West will lead to better treatment of Christians there.
In the last few weeks there has been a number of suggestions that the new leadership in Iran is open to restarting talks with the UK and the US.
According to the twitter account of President Rouhani the country's Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, is due to meet with Foreign Secretary William Hague this month. It's also understood he'll meet with US Secretary of State John Kerry.
Neither country currently has diplomatic relations with Iran with the UK closing its embassy in Tehran in 2011, after it came under attack.
The Foreign Office claimed government-sponsored militias were behind the attack.
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