Naghmeh Abedini, Franklin Graham, and the Silencing of Evangelical Abuse Victims

Let me start with a word of background. Saeed Abedini converted from Islam to Christianity in 2000. In 2002 Saeed met Naghmeh, an American citizen who grew up in Boise, and together they became active in the Iranian house church movement. They married in 2004 and left for the U.S. when the Iranian government cracked down on this movement in 2005. When Saeed returned to Iran to visit family in 2009, he was detained by authorities and forced to sign a pledge to forgo any house church activities. At this time, he was told that he could return to the country to engage in non-sectarian humanitarian activities.

Saeed gained dual citizenship in 2010, becoming an American citizen. In 2012, while in Iran to work on an orphanage, Saeed was arrested, tried, and given an eight-year prison sentence for his involvement in the house church movement. For the next three years, Naghmeh worked tirelessly to free Saeed, holding gathers of supporters and meeting with political leaders. Her drive was unshakeable. But then, this past November, something unexpected happened.

In November, Naghmeh announced that she was taking a step back from her activism to focus on herself and her two children. In emails to her supporters she mentioned, for the first time, the abuse that she had suffered at Saeed’s hands since their early marriage. According to a November 12th Christianity Today article:

In two emails to supporters, Abedini revealed details of her troubled marriage to Saeed Abedini, an American citizen and pastor imprisoned in Iran since September 2012.

Those troubles include “physical, emotional, psychological, and sexual abuse (through Saeed’s addiction to pornography),” she wrote. The abuse started early in their marriage and has worsened during Saeed’s imprisonment, she said. The two are able to speak by phone and Skype.

Touring the country to advocate for Saeed’s release while coping with marital conflict proved too much, she wrote. She told supporters she’s withdrawing from public life for a time of prayer and rest.

“It is very serious stuff and I cannot live a lie anymore,” she wrote. “So, I have decided to take a break from everything and seek the Lord on how to move forward.”

In a statement released on November 13, Naghmeh expressed some regret:

“I regret having sent the emails,” she said in a statement released Nov. 13 through the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ). “I was under great psychological and emotional distress. I am now taking time off [from public advocacy for her husband’s release] to heal and to rest and to spend much needed time with my kids.”

. . .

“I would appreciate for those who care about Saeed and our family to give us time for rest and healing and to respect our privacy,” Abedini said through the ACLJ. “I will continue to pray for my husband’s release and advocate for him as he suffers in an Iranian prison for his Christian faith. I would also ask others to join me in continuing to pray for his release.”

That Naghmeh later regretted her emails isn’t surprising. Many people questioned her decision to go public with her allegations of abuse, given that Saeed was still in prison in Iran at the time, expressing concern that efforts to free Saeed might be hurt by her revelations. Naghmeh was in a very tricky situation—she was expected to show unqualified support her husband through his unjust imprisonment, even as he continued to abuse her.

After a year of negotiations, President Obama arranged a prisoner exchange and Saeed was released from prison on January 16, 2016. Naghmeh’s years of tireless advocacy had paid off, and Saeed was coming home. But this also meant Saeed was returning to a wife who had only months before revealed his abuse to their supporters. Naghmeh initially expressed optimism about the future of their relationship:

“Please pray for us as we will be spending weeks or possibly months healing as a family and going through counseling. I am thankful for Franklin Graham for coming along side our family through these next steps of the difficult journey ahead,” she said.

“I am believing in a miracle for our marriage. We need your prayers more than ever. The enemy wants to bring division and destruction. Please pray that we can heal and move forward united as a family,” Naghmeh continued.

But this initial optimism soon faded. On January 27th, less than a week after Saeed set foot on American soil, Naghmeh released this statement on her Facebook page:

Dearest Friends,

Saeed landed in Boise yesterday and had a wonderful reunion with the children. They will be spending more and more time together in the coming days. I am so happy for this long waited reunion and for the joy that I see in my children and in Saeed. Nothing can make me happier than seeing those whom I love be happy and free from the pain that they had been under for the last 3.5 years.

I am so thankful for the thousands of people who have responded to my pleas and helped work toward Saeed’s release. His imprisonment was unjust, and was an extremely difficult ordeal for him and all of us who sought for his release. I worked tirelessly night and day toward that end for three-and-a-half years. Nothing has made me happier than seeing Saeed freed from his chains and in American soil. Thank you for all of you who stood with us and made this happen.

I do deeply regret that I hid from the public the abuse that I have lived with for most of our marriage and I ask your forgiveness. I sincerely had hoped that this horrible situation Saeed has had to go through would bring about the spiritual change needed in both of us to bring healing to our marriage.

Tragically, the opposite has occurred. Three months ago Saeed told me things he demanded I must do to promote him in the eyes of the public that I simply could not do any longer. He threatened that if I did not the results would be the end of our marriage and the resulting pain this would bring to our children.

I long more than anyone for reconciliation for our family and to be united as a family. Since Saeed’s freedom I have wanted nothing more than to run to him and welcome him home It is something I dreamed about the last 3.5 years. But unfortunately things did not work out that way and our family has to work through reconciliation. I want our reconciliation to be strictly based on God’s Word. I want us to go through counseling, which must first deal with the abuse. Then we can deal with the changes my husband and I must both make moving forward in the process of healing our marriage.

In very difficult situations sometimes you have to establish boundaries while you work toward healing. I have taken temporary legal action to make sure our children will stay in Idaho until this situation has been resolved. I love my husband, but as some might understand, there are times when love must stop enabling something that has become a growing cancer. We cannot go on the way it has been. I hope and pray our marriage can be healed. I believe in a God who freed Saeed from the worst prisons can hear our plea and bring spiritual freedom.

I love you all. God will see us through. Thank you for your prayers and support. We need them more than ever.

Love

Naghmeh

Many people asked why Naghmeh stepped back from her public activism for her husband’s release when she did, and why she mentioned her husband’s abuse then and not earlier. This statement makes it clear that something happened in October that changed things for Naghmeh.

Three months ago Saeed told me things he demanded I must do to promote him in the eyes of the public that I simply could not do any longer. He threatened that if I did not the results would be the end of our marriage and the resulting pain this would bring to our children.

This explains why Naghmeh stepped back from public activism for Saeed’s release when she did. It also becomes clear that Saeed has demonstrated to Naghmeh since his release that he has not changed. 

According to the Washington Post:

Naghmeh filed for a legal separation in Boise on Jan. 26, five days after her husband was freed in a prisoner deal that included The Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian.

A legal separation agreement would govern custody of the couple’s children while the Abedinis live apart. Naghmeh also filed for a temporary restraining order to keep her children in Idaho while she and her husband work on their future.

At issue are allegations of physical, emotional and spiritual abuse, which Naghmeh says she endured for most of her married life.

On January 28, Franklin Graham posted this on his Facebook page:

I was one of millions of people around the world praying for the release of Saeed Abedini, the American pastor imprisoned in Iran for his Christian faith. It was an honor to finally be able to meet him last week. This young men has spent 3 1/2 years of his life in jail for his faith, where he was beaten and tortured.

While we rejoice at his new freedom, we now lift him and his wife Naghmeh to the Lord for healing in their marriage. Other than God, no one knows the details and the truth of what has happened between Saeed and Naghmeh except them. There’s an old saying that there are at least two sides to every story. I can tell one thing for sure—not everything that has been reported in the media is true. 

As a minister of the Gospel, I have tried to be a friend to both and to assist them in getting Saeed home and in getting access to any help that they may need. Clearly, there is a great need for prayer for their relationship and their family. God has answered prayer by bringing about Saeed’s release from prison, and now, Satan would like nothing more than to continue to destroy their lives. It is my prayer that this will not happen.

Franklin says that there are “at least two sides to every story,” that he knows for a fact that not everything that has been reported is true (despite the fact that he only just met Saeed for the first time), and that “other than God, no one knows the details or the truth of what has happened between Saeed and Naghmeh except them.” In other words, Franklin goes to great lengths to undercut Naghmeh’s narrative.

But Naghmeh has something other women in her position generally don’t have:

In 2007, Saeed pleaded guilty to misdemeanor domestic assault in Ada County Magistrate Court. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail, which was suspended, and placed on probation for a year, according to online Idaho court records. The case file was not immediately available for review.

What is involved in “misdemeanor domestic assault,” exactly? Let’s look.

18-918.  DOMESTIC VIOLENCE.
(3) (a) A household member who commits an assault, as defined in section 18-901, Idaho Code, against another household member which does not result in traumatic injury is guilty of a misdemeanor domestic assault.

18-901.  ASSAULT DEFINED. An assault is:
(a)  An unlawful attempt, coupled with apparent ability, to commit a violent injury on the person of another; or
(b)  An intentional, unlawful threat by word or act to do violence to the person of another, coupled with an apparent ability to do so, and doing some act which creates a well-founded fear in such other person that such violence is imminent.

That sounds pretty serious—especially given the 90 day jail sentence Saeed was given. When a woman accuses a man who has pled guilty to domestic violence in the past of abuse, you would think people would listen. I mean gracious, people should listen even without this, but the man pled guilty to either attempting to violently injure Naghmeh or threatening to violently injure Naghmeh, while creating reasonable fear that he would follow through. How do you look at that and then jump to talking about how there are “two sides to every story” and “no one knows the details or the truth of what has happened?” It’s becoming quite clear that evangelicals’ problems with dealing with abuse are even worse than I had thought.

But what about Saeed? How has he responded to Naghmeh’s statements? Like this:

1. Our marriage is under great stress and I am hoping and praying for healing and restoration.

2. I love my wife and want God’s will for both of our lives.

3. I am a sinner, saved only by the wonderful grace of God. While I am far from perfect—as a man or as a husband, I am seeking every day to submit to God as He molds me into what He wants me to be.

4. Much of what I have read in Naghmeh’s posts and subsequent media reports is not true. But I believe we should work on our relationship in private and not on social media or other media. Naghmeh wrote this week, “We are taking personal time to work on very serious personal issues.” I intend to do this hard work in private.

5. The God I serve today is the same God I served while being interrogated and beaten in some of the harshest prison conditions in the world and He is capable of restoring a marriage that has withstood unbelievable pressure. I ask for prayer for another victory.

I grieve for the position in which Naghmeh now finds herself. Franklin Graham, perhaps the most prominent public evangelical figure of our era, has stated publicly that there are “two sides” to the story, and her husband, Saeed, has publicly accused her of lying. Meanwhile, both of them have positioned the restoration of the couple’s marriage as a victory from God and the destruction of their marriage as a victory for Satan. In other words, if Naghmeh decides to make the separation permanent, she will have allowed Satan to win. Think, for a moment, about the impossible position in which that puts Naghmeh.

There’s something else to note in Saeed’s positioning as well. Evangelical women typically lose any hope they might have for their community’s support in leaving an abusive husband when that husband professes to be actively working to listen to and submit to God. As long as her husband says he is working on his relationship with God and that he wants to fix the marriage, an evangelical woman will typically be seen as the one destroying a marriage if she leaves, even if her husband is actively abusing her. Saeed has positioned himself as the reasonable one, the one listening to God and dedicated to restoring his marriage. This perfectly positions Naghmeh as the unreasonable one, the one willing to flee in the face of God’s efforts at restoration and destroy a marriage.

On a related note, I keep seeing people talking about the Naghmeh and Saeed’s “marriage troubles.” That’s a rather fancy way of saying “Saeed is abusive and Naghmeh is trying to decide whether to stay and hope against all history that things will change or whether to leave and create a new life with her children.” By discussing it as “marriage troubles,” the responsibility for fixing their marriage is placed on both Naghmeh and Saeed. Oh, and can we talk about that term, “fixing their marriage”? Their marriage doesn’t need fixing, Saeed needs fixing. And given how long his abuse of Naghmeh has been going on, and the fact that he has apparently shown enough red flags right out of prison that Naghmeh felt the need to file an order to prevent him from taking the children out of the state, it looks like that’s not happening.

Finally, I made the mistake of reading comments on Facebook and you know what? A whole bunch of people are upset with Naghmeh for making her husband look bad. That’s just lovely—and it’s something I imagine pastors’ wives feel more keenly than other evangelical women. Coming forward about your abuse will damage your husband’s ministry. Why can’t you just keep quiet and let the Lord do his work? I can’t even imagine the pressure these women must feel. Frankly, the wonder is not that Naghmeh kept quiet for so long but rather that she had the courage to come forward about her abuse at all—and we should all be asking what that means for other evangelical women in abusive marriages.

[Addendum: As a reader pointed out, evangelicals ought to be praising Naghmeh for working so hard to free Saeed—her abuser—from an unjust imprisonment. She could have just written him off when he was imprisoned, but instead she worked to see him freed. Imprisoning someone based on their faith is utterly abhorrent regardless of their other actions. It’s unfortunate that society didn’t afford her the room to be both open about the abuse she suffered at Saeed’s hands and adamant that Saeed’s eight-year prison sentence for attempting to spread his faith was unjust.]


Stay in touch with Love, Joy, Feminism on Facebook:

Pastor Doug Wilson: Christianity Is the Real Target
Virginia Reforms Troglodyte Marriage Law
Terrorist Attack, Mass Shooting, or Anti-Gay Hate Crime? How We Talk about Orlando Is Important
I Was Raised to Be a Conservative Culture Warrior. Then I Jumped the Political Fence.
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X