Pastor Saeed Abedini of Boise, Idaho remains imprisoned in an Iranian jail. It’s hard to find much written about him other than in religiously affiliated media.
Still, President Obama went out of his way Saturday to issue a statement urging his release, along with the release of Amir Hekmati, a U.S. Marine veteran, and Jason Rezaian, a Washington Post reporter
All three are being held on what appear to be baseless charges. But Abedini is being held because of his religious beliefs, and that makes him somewhat symbolic of a much broader level of injustice sweeping the Middle East — one that deserves more attention.
As the president said, Abedini has spent two and a half years in prison. His crime appears to have been converting to Christianity, then returning to his native Iran to visit family and talk about it.
But despite the online posting, which the president tied to the Islamic springtime holiday Nowruz, critics say Obama’s statement was a little perplexing. Will Hall of the Christian Examiner
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said “… it is not clear why the White House chose this medium to engage the issue when it has U.S. officials in direct contact with Iranian negotiators attempting to forge a deal about that country's controversial nuclear program.”
To be fair, the administration may be using the release of these captives as a bargaining chip in those negotiations, but there is no outward sign of this, and it would be inconsistent with other such discussions.
Meanwhile, one can hardly understate the current level of persecution against Christians in the Middle East. Islamic State militants show no mercy as they kill, kidnap, rape and enslave Christians and Muslims who believe differently than they do. In the Nineveh plains, ISIS fighters have removed Chaldean Christians and others who have coexisted for 2,000 years from their homes.
But ISIS isn’t alone. Pakistan continues to hold Asia Bibi, a Christian wife and mother, on death row for blasphemy. Another woman accused her of insulting the prophet Mohammed, which was enough for a court to give her the death penalty.
In Egypt, Coptic Christians have been persecuted relentlessly since the political changes inspired by the Arab Spring. Last year, the Christian a watch list published by the Christian nonprofit group Open Doors USA concluded more Christians lived in fear of their lives in 2014 than at any time in memory.
But that isn’t all. Anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe. France has had to increase security at Jewish schools, and only partially as a reaction to the attack against Charlie Hebdo. Newsweek reports France saw twice as many anti-Semitic attacks in 2014 than the year before.
In House hearings this week, the president of the World Jewish Congress said Europe’s rise in anti-Jewish hatred represents a strange confluence of neo-Nazis, radical Muslims and intellectuals who hate Israel.
In the face of this, it cannot be said that Obama has done nothing. His online statement urging the release of prisoners follows a line or two about religious freedom in his State of the Union Address and a military commitment to rescue members of the Yazidi faith who were trapped on a mountain by ISIS fighters.
But given the scope of the problem, this is next to nothing.
As Hisham Melhem of the Al Arabiya News Channel wrote recently, “The president and other senior officials should speak publicly and forcefully against persecution of Christians and other minorities and use their influence particularly in countries where they have clout.”
So far, this doesn’t seem to be happening. The newly appointed U.S. ambassador at-large for religious freedom, Rabbi David Saperstein, told Congress this month that he has a broad view of religious freedom, believing all people have a right to live their faith publicly, according to World Magazine. But his office should be more visible in confronting problems abroad.
It’s time for the administration to recognize this worldwide trend for what it is — a dangerous attack on conscience and liberty that could undo pluralism and threaten democratic traditions. If the U.S. doesn’t aggressively counter this, who will?