Christianity Today Just Gave a Mouthpiece to an Alleged Abuser

Christianity Today Just Gave a Mouthpiece to an Alleged Abuser May 10, 2016

Last fall, Naghmeh Abedini suspended her activism for the release of her husband Saeed Abedini, an American pastor imprisoned in Iran, to take some personal time. In a a pair of emails to her supporters, she spoke for the first time of suffering years of physical and emotional abuse at Saeed’s hands. These emails were made public in Christianity Today, a leading evangelical publication. When Saeed was released from prison in January, Naghmeh was guarded but held out hope that Saeed might have changed. Her hope was quickly dashed, and she pursued legal separation even as he sought to publicly paint her as the problem.

This month Christianity Today has given Saeed the microphone, publishing an interview titled “I’m in ‘Another Prison,'” in which Saeed alleges that Naghmeh is doing Satan’s work. The irresponsibility of the publication’s actions is stunning. The interview was published with a different title online in late April, but most of it is behind a paywall. I obtained access to the full thing and will include excerpts below.

Here is how the magazine introduces the interview:

For more than three years, Iranian American pastor Saeed Abedini sat in an Iranian prison, where interrogators beat him and pressured him to recant his faith. Freed this January in a prisoner swap initiated by President Obama, Abedini is now in the United States, where many Christians and religious-liberty groups had prayed and campaigned for his release.

The homecoming has been bittersweet. Last fall, Naghmeh Abedini—who had campaigned tirelessly for her husband—told supporters via email that her marriage has included “physical, emotional, psychological, and sexual abuse (through Saeed’s addiction to pornography).” She has since filed for legal separation. Christianity Today reported on Naghmeh’s emails last fall, and will continue to report on legal developments involving the Abedinis.

Meanwhile, CT print managing editor Katelyn Beaty recently spoke with Saeed about the abuse allegations, how he came to Christ in Iran, and how American Christians have more influence in global affairs than they think.

The promise that Christianity Today will continue to “report on legal developments involving the Abedinis” masks the fact that the publication has never given Naghmeh the sort of platform they give Saeed in this piece. Their November 2015 article about the situation did includes quotes form a statement Naghmeh sent them (presumably upon their request when writing the piece), but where is their longford interview with Naghmeh, exactly? Instead, they give the alleged abuser the microphone and the chance to tell his side of the story.

I understand wanting to do an interview with Saeed. He was imprisoned in Iran for three and a half years, and during that time evangelical media covered his story extensively. What I don’t understand is why, if they had to do an interview, Christianity Today didn’t keep the topic centered soundly on that imprisonment. Because they didn’t. Instead, they allowed him to immediately swing the conversation to Naghmeh’s abuse allegations and the couple’s separation.

You’ve been out of prison now for two months. What’s life been like since you’ve returned to the States?

After I got released, it was very different from what I imagined before I got released. I was waiting for more welcome, especially from my family, wife, and the church I went to in Boise, but I didn’t get that. I thought that once I got released from prison, I was going to relax and get time to rest, but the situation got worse. The news, the false accusations—today I can’t feel my freedom yet; it was just like coming out of a prison to another prison.

I’m very sad that the people who have prayed for me for years, some of them with tears and some of them writing me letters—I heard that 100,000 letters came to prison monthly, so people did a good job. But we couldn’t rejoice together for what God did in my life? That was the hardest part.

And this is where the interview should have stopped. Really. With this very first response Saeed made it clear that he was more interested in making a power play against his estranged wife—you know, the one accusing him of years of emotional and physical abuse—than he was in having a productive conversation about his imprisonment. I get that there are sometimes false accusations, but frankly, Saeed’s response to Naghmeh’s allegations is straight out of an abuser’s playbook. The Christianity Today interviewer ought to have recognized this.

What is the status of your and Naghmeh’s marriage?

She legally filled out a protection [restraining] order and filed for legal separation. Now we are in that process.

So guess what? You can’t just get a restraining order. You have to show that there is a reason you need a restraining order—namely, that the person you are taking a restraining order out against has given you a legitimate reason to be afraid, that they won’t respect your boundaries, that they won’t leave you alone when you tell them too. Again, the Christianity Today interviewer should know this, and might consider a followup question—but of course she won’t. Instead, she goes right where he wants her to.

So you felt more support when you were in jail than when you were out of jail?

Yeah. Because people are confused. People now have two different Saeeds. One of them is a hero of their faith; one of them is an abuser, an addicter [sic]. When I talk with some people, I can see the confusion. I don’t believe this confusion is coming from God. This is completely coming from Satan, who wants me to stop preaching the gospel and wants people to stop rejoicing for my release, because it was a big victory for the Christian world. Now with these false accusations, trying to make the churches all around the world confused—it’s clear to me that Satan is behind this.

This is the point where the interviewer should be realizing that she definitely can’t print this. Saeed just said straight-out that Satan is behind his wife’s “false” allegations of abuse. If that’s not a huge warning sign, I don’t know what is. Can we talk about how little support Naghmeh probably feels right now?

Look, Naghmeh had nothing to gain from making her allegations, and she still has nothing to gain. Her allegations have earned her the scorn and distain of much of the evangelical community. When her husband returned from his imprisonment, she could have welcomed him with open arms and been the toast of the evangelical world, wined and dined up and down, but she chose instead to pursue legal separation. And now she gets to be accused of being in league with Satan in the leading evangelical magazine in the country. Lovely.

Let’s see where the interviewer goes next:

You said “false accusations.” Does that mean you are saying that Naghmeh’s accusations are false?

Yes.

Well that was a short answer.

The interviewer does appear to know at least something about the allegations, though.

Can you talk about the misdemeanor domestic assault charge in 2007? You pled guilty to that, and that suggests there was at least one instance of marital abuse.

I believe courts can make mistakes too. They are not God; they can make a mistake. I talked with Franklin Graham. He asked me to keep silent and not say anything about anyone. Graham encouraged me, “Let other people defend you.” I think the court made a mistake, and I didn’t know that I’d been guilty until three weeks ago. I didn’t know that I got a sentence of 90 days in court until three weeks ago. No one told me.

This would be the same Franklin Graham whose solution to Naghmeh’s allegations was to make plans to stick the couple alone in a cabin at one of his retreat centers until they worked it out—because that is apparently how he handles allegations of spousal abuse and domestic violence. But note, here, that Saeed is not actually taking Graham’s advice to keep silent on the topic. Why he quotes Graham to openly flout his advice I have absolutely no idea. I suspect he simply wanted to name drop.

Mercifully, the interviewer follows up on Saeed’s claim regarding the 2007 charge.

You don’t remember going to court in 2007?

I did, but it was a time that I had just come to the United States. My English was pretty weak. Everything that happened was between Naghmeh, the lawyer, and the court, so I didn’t know what was going on. They said that everything was okay, that they dismissed everything. So I said, okay, they made a mistake. Then three weeks ago, I saw from the news that I got a guilty charge, and I was shocked.

According to a 2013 article, Saeed and Naghmeh (who had grown up in Idaho) left Iran in late 2005 and lived in a nearby country until they had their paperwork in order for Saeed to come to the U.S., in early 2006. According to the same article, Saeed obtained citizenship that same year. According to the Idaho Statesman, the charges stemmed from an incident in July 2007, when Saeed had been in the country for over a year. The Idaho Statesman also reports that Saeed had an interpreter during the proceeding, and that Saeed himself plead guilty.

I’m guessing the interviewer hasn’t actually read the Idaho Statesman’s reporting on the incident, though, or she wouldn’t have asked this next question. Saeed was sentenced to 90 days in jail, but he did not actually serve this time and instead did a year of probation and was required to take anger management classes.

Did you go to jail in 2007?

Just one night, when Naghmeh called 911, police came and asked what happened and I said this is completely wrong and they said, “Someone just called 911, you need to come with us.” I stayed one night in jail, and the day after that was the court hearing, and Naghmeh said, “I made a mistake. He never did those things.” So they told me they had dismissed it.

The Idaho Statesman’s description of the incident report and ensuing case is important reading. Not only has the interviewer pretty clearly not read it, given her line of questions and failure to follow through, but Saeed appears to be banking on other people not having read it as well. There is nothing in the published interview verifying the veracity of any of Saeed’s statements. There is no mention that Saeed had an interpreter, or that he himself pled guilty, and no attempt to confirm any of Saeed’s statements with Naghmeh or anyone else. Instead, Saeed is allowed to tell his side of the 2007 incident in the most prominent evangelical publication in the country without criticism or fact checking of any kind.

And then we get this:

Is there anything you need to repent of in your marriage?

Did you read my letter about this accusation that I released when I arrived in Boise, one month ago? It said I completely reject all accusations, but at the same time, I call Naghmeh and [our] children my heroes, because of their advocating for me and their standing for their faith. I just admire them. Naghmeh is my hero; she stood strong for years. But no, I never abused anyone in my life, and I’ve never been addicted to anything.

This is not how an innocent man responds to allegations of domestic violence and abuse, and I honestly cannot believe it got printed. By continuing to praise Naghmeh, Saeed is able to look as though he’s taking the high road while at the same time not being introspective at all about why his wife might, oh I don’t know, accuse him of abusing her. No marriage is perfect even in the absence of abuse, and yet Saeed is incapable of admitting any wrongdoing at all. [This section was expanded to add clarity.]

Frankly, Saeed’s responses to Naghmeh’s allegations and actions have convinced me that he is indeed guilty of abuse. Anyone familiar with the dynamics of abuse and the tactics abusers use, especially in the church, will recognize the warning signs screaming for attention here. It should be extremely concerning that neither the Christianity Today interviewer nor her editors appear to see anything at all amiss.

At this point the interviewer finally turns the conversation toward things she should have focused on from the beginning—how Saeed first converted from Islam to Christianity, his work planting house churches in Iran, and his years in prison.

The only other question I want to hit on is this one:

Where should we be headed now as a church?

All Americans now know that we need revival. America today is different from the America I saw before I went to prison. Americans don’t think like they thought four years ago. They are very thirsty. Now they are looking for real change. They are looking to find that change in political ways. They found out that something is wrong, but they are looking for it in the wrong way, in politicians and the next president. I never saw America be involved in politics like this. It means that people are thirsty, they need something, but it’s only going to come from Jesus Christ and revival. I believe revival is going to come back.

The discrepancy in treatment here is overwhelming. Who has asked Naghmeh where evangelicals should be headed as a church? No one. But they’re jumping all over themselves to ask her alleged abuser about the church’s future directly. This is a shame, because Naghmeh would probably have some pretty stern words about how the church supports—or rather, does not support—victims of abuse and domestic violence. She would probably have some pretty good ideas about how evangelicals as a community need to go about fixing this. But no, its her alleged abuser the evangelical church wants to hear from, not her.

I keep thinking things are getting better—that maybe, just maybe, evangelicals are getting better about how they respond to abuse—and then reality jumps out and bites me once again. I’m flummoxed that Christianity Today didn’t include any refutation of any of Saeed’s statements whatsoever, that they didn’t bother bringing up the content of the 2007 incident report, that they never bothered to conform any of Saeed’s claims with Naghmeh, and that they instead ran what is in effect a PR piece for a man accused of years of emotional and physical abuse. Remember that it appears that Naghmeh has been granted a restraining order, and judges don’t just hand those out without reason.

If Christianity Today was so interested in running an interview with Saeed—it’s understandable that who followed his imprisonment for years would want to hear from him—they could have run this same interview limiting it to questions about Saeed’s experiences in Iran and his imprisonment. There’s no reason they had to ask about the abuse allegations, and even if they had, there’s no reason they had to print his responses when they turned out to be as horrifying as they in fact are. The fact that the publication may not recognize how terrible Saeed’s responses were points to a deeper problem within the evangelical community—an severe ignorance of the dynamics of abuse and the tactics of abusers.

Badly done, Christianity Today, badly done.

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