One of my favorite TV programs when I was younger was 227. It wasn’t necessarily ground breaking material, riding in on the coat tails of the Cosby Show as a series about a African American family. Before that, there was The Jeffersons, where Marla Gibbs got her start.
A particular episode still resonates with me today. Lester Jenkins (played by Hal Williams) is offered a job with a growing company and a large increase in salary. This would allow the family to move out of their apartment (where the show got its title) and into a real house. Then Lester discovers the company makes a lot of money in South Africa, where apartheid was still being practiced and Nelson Mandela was still imprisoned. Lester decides that he will not take the job and profit personally from the pain of others living in a repressive state. This is the first time I had ever heard of the concept that no one is free while others are oppressed. I don’t know where the concept originated, but that idea of equality struck a chord with me, even as young as I was. It was part of my decision to join the military.
A few months ago, I heard about Pastor Saeed Abedini. He gained notoriety in Iran by helping to organize what are known as house churches, as it is illegal in Iran for Christians to gather in organized places of worship. When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005, harsh crackdowns on those not practicing Islam forced Abedini to flee with his family to the United States, where his wife was born. But Pastor Abedini felt he must help those still being persecuted, and he returned to Iran several times. He was detained in 2009, then released on the condition he sign an oath never to practice his faith in Iran again. Still, he persevered, and was arrested again in 2012. When he went to trial in January of 2013 he was found guilty of having “undermined the Iranian government by creating a network of Christian house churches and … attempting to sway Iranian youth away from Islam…”, for which he was sentenced to eight years, and incarcerated in Evin Prison in Tehran. In November, he was transferred to Gohardasht prison, which is known to harbor the most violent criminals in Iran and the conditions are extremely dangerous.
I am not calling attention to this because Pastor Abedini is a Christian, but rather because he is a peaceful man that was nearly sentenced to death merely because his religion is seen as a threat to Iran. Oppressive governments have done this for centuries, and that is part of the reason our Founding Fathers put the words “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” into law. Any person in our country is legally free to practice whatever religion they want, or none at all, without any imposition or direction of the government. But not in many countries, including Iran. Pastor Abedini’s only crime is letting people hear something else and choose for themselves to practice a religion other than Islam.
There is an effort to help pressure Iran into releasing Pastor Abedini, with many different ways you can help spread the word. One Facebook page is coordinating social media presence, and another is asking for emotional and spiritual support. There is also a petition site looking to bring attention to the issue as well as asking for donations for the legal defense of Pastor Abedini. One final thing that can be done to help is to contact your local elected representatives, the State Department, and President Obama, asking for their efforts to bring about the release of Pastor Abedini.
Mahatma Ghandi once said, “I know of no greater sin than to oppress the innocent in the name of God.” That is clearly happening here. Along those same lines, Martin Luther King, jr, said, “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.” I hope all reading this will not be part of the silence.