(RNS) Wearing sneakers and a black winter jacket, a smiling Saeed Abedini stepped off a private jet in North Carolina Thursday afternoon (Jan. 21), and was greeted by his parents and sister as well as the Rev. Franklin Graham.
Abedini spent more than three years in an Iranian prison and was released last week along with four other prisoners. His wife, Naghmeh Abedini, flew to a U.S. military hospital in Germany to greet him upon his return and described him as being in “very good condition.”
“Please pray for us as we will be spending weeks or possibly months healing as a family and going through counseling,” Naghmeh Abedini said. She also asked for prayers “that we can heal and move forward united as a family.”
Naghmeh Abedini shocked supporters in November when she said her husband abused her and was addicted to porn.
The Iranian-American pastor will spend some time at the Billy Graham Training Center, known as The Cove, a retreat center for pastors nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Asheville.
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“None of us in America can begin to understand or appreciate what Saeed has endured after being imprisoned in Iran because of his Christian faith,” Franklin Graham, head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and son of the famed preacher, said in a statement. “We want to provide him a quiet place to rest and visit with family.”
Abedini will spend a few days with his parents before his wife and children join him Monday, Naghmeh Abedini said. And, she added, their son Jacob might even get his birthday wish to spend his 8th birthday in March at a Disney theme park with his dad.
The release of Abedini was welcomed by those who had prayed for the freedom of the jailed pastor, many of whom had voiced their support for him on social media with the hashtag #SaveSaeed since his imprisonment in 2012.
“Today was like my first day, you know, of my life. I thought I was born again — being born again again,” Abedini told attorney Jay Sekulow in a phone call posted on the American Center for Law and Justice website.
But celebratory tweets from Republican presidential candidates — who had previously criticized President Obama for not doing enough to gain Abedini’s release — were swiftly followed by criticisms of the nuclear deal that appears to have facilitated the prisoner swap.
“In Iran deal we get four prisoners. They get $150 billion, 7 most wanted and many off watch list. This will create great incentive for others!” Donald Trump tweeted.
But Naghmeh Abedini did tweet: “I just had a wonderful call w/ @BarackObama @POTUS ! Our family is so thankful for all the hard work and support in bringing Saeed home.” She also has expressed gratitude to others for their efforts, including Franklin Graham and lawyers at the American Center for Law and Justice.
Robert George, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said its members “rejoice” in Abedini’s release but believe religious freedom should be given more attention than it has been in any administration, not just the Obama White House.
“The lengthy unjust imprisonment of pastor Saeed Abedini in Iran poignantly reminds us that people around the world are suffering for their religious beliefs, actions or religious freedom advocacy,” George said.
For Michael Wear, who worked on faith outreach for the White House during Obama’s first term and is now a strategist on faith and politics, it recalls the politics surrounding the case of Iranian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani. Nadarkhani had been sentenced to death for “apostasy” in the Islamic Republic after converting to Christianity and was later released.
“It was almost the exact same thing — the same type of suggestions that the president wasn’t dong all he could, even though he probably was,” Wear said.
Obama spoke about Abedini at last year’s National Prayer Breakfast, saying “we’re doing everything we can to bring him home.”
Wear acknowledged that the pastor was helped by the prayers and advocacy of people across the United States, including critics of the president.
Still, he said, “To be an effective advocate is not just to critique elected officials when they do something wrong, but applaud them when they accomplish something and do something right.”
(Emily McFarlan Miller is an RNS correspondent)