This month, we feature an excerpt from an interview between Dr. Jeff Myers and Naghmeh Abedini, wife of Pastor Saeed Abedini who has been imprisoned in Iran for the past two and a half years. Naghmeh graciously visited the 2015 Summit Adult Conference in mid-March. This excerpt focuses on the ministry that Naghmeh and Saeed had in Iran and the incredibly inspiring ways they have seen God move in the Middle East.
Dr. Jeff Myers: We have a really great privilege tonight to have with us Naghmeh Abedini. In order to understand Naghmeh’s story (and we’re going to come up here and have a little interview), but in order to understand Naghmeh’s story, we need to understand something of her family’s story. And we’ll talk about that some when we have our conversation, but Naghmeh’s husband, Saeed Abedini, who’s a pastor and father from Boise, Idaho, is currently imprisoned in Iran.
He was imprisoned July 28 of 2012. He was visiting Tehran. He was there to visit family … to help put together the board to organize an orphanage. And the Iranian revolutionary guard detained him and said they were going to have him face criminal charges for his Christian faith. He was interrogated, put under house arrest, and told to wait for a court summons. On the 26 of September of 2012, he didn’t receive a summons, but five members of the revolutionary guard raided his parents’ home, they confiscated many of his belongings, and they took him to an unknown location.
After four days, the revolutionary guard informed the family that Saeed was in solitary confinement in a notorious prison. Throughout Saeed’s imprisonment, he spent several weeks in solitary confinement. And during that time he was only brought out of his cell to be interrogated in an abusive fashion. He has been allowed visitation now from his family in Tehran, but he has been cut off from Naghmeh and their young children.
Saeed’s been denied medical treatment for the infections he received from the treatment. While in the prison, the doctor and the nurse refused to treat him because they said as a Christian he is unclean, he’s an infidel. In 2013 it became clear that Saeed was suffering from internal injuries, the doctors determined that his injuries warranted immediate attention, and that he needed to be treated in a non-prison hospital. For almost a year, the Iranian regime ignored this advice. In March of 2014, Saeed was permitted to enter a private hospital for treatment, but after spending almost two months in the hospital, he was returned to prison without having been given the surgeries deemed necessary by the hospital doctors.
Secretary of State John Kerry has called for pastor Saeed’s release, the White House has called for his release, the House of Representatives held two emotional hearings that highlighted his plight, multiple nations have called for his release, attorneys from the ACLJ have argued his case before the United Nations. We’re still waiting for breakthroughs on this. …
But this isn’t just an abstraction. This is a pastor wanting to do good things, who is being persecuted for his faith. And he has a champion. His wife, Naghmeh, will not give up doing everything she can to help secure his release, fighting for him.
Dr. Myers: Now, let’s go back to the beginning. How did you and Saeed meet? And then there are the missionary journeys and all of that, but talk a little bit about that.
Naghmeh: So I grew up in Idaho. I was born in Iran, came to the United States when I was 9, ended up in Idaho. When we were in California (we came to California and my dad had a few brothers that lived there), my brother had a vision of Jesus, and he came running to me.
Now the first nine years of my life, I grew up on war. Iran and Iraq were at war. The Islamic revolution happened, the hostage crisis, and then there was war. So I grew up sleeping most nights in a basement and hearing Iraqi airplanes bombing, and missiles, and waking up to destruction, seeing houses around us destroyed and our school friends dead. And so my twin brother and I were always talking, “Where is God, who is God?”
So when we came to California and he came running to me and he said, “I found the God we’ve been looking for!” I knew what he was … he said he had a vision of Jesus. He said, “Naghmeh, I’ve found the God we’ve been looking for, His name is Jesus.”
And that was pretty powerful to me because as my twin brother, we’d talked about who’s God, who’s this God. And we’d found Him.
And so my parents got angry and my dad thought we’d lost our culture, our identity. He was going to move us back to Iran. He said, it’s better if you die, I’ve lost everything. I’ve lost my kids to this American culture. And so he was thinking about moving us back when one of his brothers had found a job in Boise, Idaho, and he said, give Idaho a try. It seems pretty secluded. Out in the middle of nowhere. So from 10 million people in Tehran, we moved to California, and then we moved to Idaho.
So 12 years into it, my parents in Boise, Idaho, gave their hearts to Christ, the city they ran away to. So my uncle’s idea was move the kids to Idaho, debrief, bring them back to Islam. They thought, they’re 9, they’re kids, what could kids possibly? … It’s a phase; they’re probably going to grow out of it. They tried really hard. They wouldn’t let us read the Bible, they wouldn’t let us go to church, but we kept our faith, and 12 years into it they accepted Christ.
My twin brother ended up getting his doctorate in quantum physics at the University of Chicago, so I was the loser because after four years I was supposed to go to med school at the University of Washington, but the Lord was like, “That’s not the plan I have for you.” And He just turned everything. He said, I want you to go back to Iran. And I was like, “What?”
My parents at that time were believers. I had graduated from college, and they said, no, your future is in the U.S., you need to live the American dream. But I felt the Lord say, I want you to break your idols and the things you hold dear, and the American dream, and the finances, and your parents, and security. Because for me, Iran meant bombs and a scary place. I was very fearful of airplanes because from a very young age they were a sign of death, growing up in Iran.
Long story short, I ended up by God’s grace flying into the Middle East two months after September 11.
I was pretty fearful, I wasn’t out in the streets evangelizing. I wasn’t. I started sharing with my uncles and aunts, and five of my cousins accepted Christ within a year. So I thought I was done. My parents kept calling me, “Are you done with your mission trip now? Are you ready to come home?” And I was going through a lot, I was crying a lot, I felt depressed. And they were like, “Did you get enough of that? Are you ready to come home? Do you see how they treat you?”
I was ready to come back in 2002, but when I was ready to come back, I met Saeed and I got stuck for another few years. So I met him at a church, actually. I had a cousin who had converted two years earlier. An amazing story, but she was part of a local church, and she kept telling me to come to the church. And I thought, no, it’s a government approved church. I was so scared. I didn’t want the government to know. I don’t want to go under the radar of the Iranian government. I’d rather just do my little Bible study with my cousins in my house, my little apartment.
So I didn’t go for a year, and I was flying back to the U.S., and she was persistent. So I thought, OK I’ll come to your church. I’m not going to be in Iran for long. So I went to the church and that’s where I met Saeed.
Dr. Myers: Now he was a relatively recent convert at that point?
Naghmeh: He was. In 2002, he was a 2-year-old in the Lord. He converted in the year 2000. He was so much stronger than me. At that time, I was, I don’t know, 15 years in the Lord, and he was so much … When I met him, he was a pastor of about 100 people, college-age students. He was in his 20s. Pretty much the church was 20s and younger.
We got married in 2004, and by 2005 when we left Iran, over 2,000 Muslims had converted to Christ. Just within our house church network. There were so many others. And it spread from Tehran, and it was all young people, all college aged. It spread from Tehran to 30 cities. There are so many stories.
One time we visited 10 cities in 10 days, and we had $50. And every city, we would go pray and someone would open their door, and we would stay at their house. We would share the gospel, and they would feed us, they would take care of our needs. And we got to lead people to Christ, every house, every city, and then we’d move on to the next one. We went through the Turkish part, the Kurdish part, just part of Iran.
One time we picked up this Turkish boy and we said, “Do you know who Jesus is?” and he said, “He doesn’t live in my village.” It was just powerful. At the end, we gave him a Jesus film in his own language and he was just screaming and shouting in the streets, wanting his whole village to watch it. They had one TV and they were going to watch the movie in their own language. But it was just amazing going from city to city and sharing the gospel and seeing it spread, especially among the young people who were thirsty for God, but they were tired of religion.
Dr. Myers: Is that part of what you think put Saeed and you on the radar of the leadership there?
Naghmeh: We were on the radar because Saeed was a part of the government approved church, so he was always on the radar. But the government was allowing it. It was a more moderate government, you know, it wasn’t really taking Christianity seriously. They didn’t realize it would spread so quickly. So they knew all this was happening, and they were just letting it happen; they were allowing it. He wasn’t hiding it from the government, but the president before Ahmadinejad was more moderate, very much believed in allowing the Christians to do that. They knew that our house churches existed and were allowing it, were permitting it.
Actually, at our wedding, Saeed said, let’s go tell the Iranian government we’re converts. I said no. He said, I want to get a permission to have a Christian wedding, I can’t imagine making promises to Allah. I said, no, let’s do that. Let’s just make the promise and then break it or something. Well, he convinced me after much argument. I would always tell him that my first job as his fiancé and then his wife was to argue to make sure he was making the right decision! And after much argument, he was pretty adamant about that decision. So we went to the Iranian government; we said we’re Christians.
And then I thought, my parents are coming for our wedding, maybe 10 people would show up for our wedding, maybe 30, 40, 50 people from Saeed’s family. There ended up being about 600 people, most of which I didn’t know. Saeed was there. Somehow he had had our bridesmaids and groomsmen make 300 wedding favors of Bibles and Jesus films, so they’re passing those out. I’m in my wedding dress. He’s up on the — I have the video; I’ve shared it with people — Saeed’s up on the pulpit sharing Christ and I’m just in my wedding dress looking at him. I’m just thinking, is this a wedding? Is this another church event? What is this? It’s interesting because we had our biggest fight that day, ’cause I felt like he didn’t stop doing ministry and I felt like there’s one day you can just stop and you can just focus!
Actually the meeting I had on our 10th anniversary, I thought, “God this is your gift! I’m going to hear good news!” The first response from the meeting with a very high up state department person, after a lot of people in the room, was that our positive thoughts are with you. Their first response was, your husband just keeps making things worse, everywhere they take him. They put him in Evan prison and he was leading people to Christ there, so they exiled him. (Which I didn’t know you could exile a prisoner once they were in prison.) So they exiled him to another prison and they put him in the murderer ward.
I don’t know if I’ve shared this, but the head of the new prison ward told Saeed’s father, if he even mentions that he’s a Christian, that he’s a convert, they will kill him. There is no way your son can lead anyone to Christ here. And people start having dreams about Jesus, these murderers. He was in the lions’ den. That month he was in there, we were afraid for his life. He was covered with lice, he had death threats, people were trying to put drugs in his food, they were trying to kill him. I mean it was just horrible. We didn’t know if the next prison visit he would be alive. And people start having dreams about Jesus and went to Saeed and asked about who Jesus is and accepted Christ and start protecting him.
So long story short, the state department’s just telling me they moved him from the murderer ward to another place, and then they moved him to the hospital; they beat him. From the hospital, so many people were accepting Christ, so many people coming in, there are so many stories. His parents were with him at the hospital, and people with injuries and nurses were accepting Christ, so they beat him and moved him back to Evan prison.
So our government official was saying, he’s making it hard! He just keeps sharing Christ wherever. And the Iranian government is just pretty frustrated about that. And I just said, “Well, he’s not doing it out of defiance, he’s doing it out of his passion for Christ.” And I got to share in that meeting how Jesus Christ has changed his life. And I said, the Iranian government could always kick him out of the country! I was coming from that meeting and I was just thinking, this is who Saeed is.
The few years that we lived in Iran, it was pretty amazing seeing God move. The young people … Iran is very open to the gospel, which is scaring the Iranian government. God’s strategy is to bring the young people. Seventy percent of Iran is 30s and younger, and they’re very open to the gospel, very open. The government, the way we treat terrorism, that’s the way they treat Christianity — it’s their number one fear.
When they were torturing Saeed the first months and they were putting him in solitary, they said, “You’ve corrupted so many young people. No matter what we do, they won’t turn back. Maybe if you turn back to Islam, they would also turn back.” So they were trying to make him deny his faith so that other people would see him as an example.
Dr. Myers: What you’re describing is straight out of the book of Acts.
Naghmeh: It’s the same God. What’s interesting is we see so much stuff on the outside, but God is doing so much, moving in the most powerful way in the most dark places of the world. It was amazing for someone who’s grown up in the U.S. to see that, to see so many getting saved in Iran and so much openness to the gospel. The people are oppressed, they are tired of religion. They are tired of Islam. But they’re not tired of God.
So when we offered them relationship with God and Jesus Christ, they were ready. They would weep. There were young kids who would be kicked out of their houses, they were persecuted by their families, they would lose jobs, they were denied education because they had become Christians, but they were on fire for the Lord. They were sleeping wherever, moving house to house, city to city, sharing the gospel.
Dr. Myers: I just have this sense, maybe you do too, of how much bigger God is than I usually think in the culture that we’re a part of.
Naghmeh: He is. One thing is that, when I lived in the states, I wouldn’t say it, but in the back of my mind I questioned the justice of God, because I thought how could someone who’s been in this village in Africa who’s never heard about Jesus, how could You keep him accountable? But when I went to Iran, we would go with a taxi driver or someone in the street, and we would pray and the Lord would show us people to go and talk to, and we would say, “Do you know who Jesus is?” We would have people bring out wooden crosses and they would start weeping and they would say, “My child was dying and I cried out to God and Jesus appeared to me. And He said, I’m the way the truth and the life.”
So for me, that made a lot of sense. It answered a lot of questions that whoever calls on the name of God will find Jesus Christ. God is not limited to missionaries, God is bigger. That for me opened my mind. Maybe it’s simple for a lot of people, but for me, I was like, “Oh God, You will. Whoever calls on Your name, in whatever language, in whatever state, just calls out and says, God you are there, Jesus you are there.”
Just hearing testimony after testimony of people seeking God and finding Jesus. And a lot of them didn’t even have Bibles, and they would tell me the “Our Father Who Art in Heaven” prayer, and in their dream or vision Jesus had taught them that. And when we gave them Bibles, they were excited. So just hearing stories like that really strengthened my faith, having grown up in the U.S. and realizing God is bigger. He involves us in the ministry, but He can do it without us. He can reach the lost without our help.
In Naghmeh’s full interview, she shares so many other amazing things: the lessons her children are learning through this experience, the opportunities God has given her to reach millions of Iranians, and an awe-inspiring account of how God responded to her prayer and fasting to move the President of the United States. To read the transcription in full, click here.