(RNS) — In the summer of 2016, Naghmeh Panahi sat in a room with one of the most powerful ministers in America to discuss the fate of her marriage.
Both her lawyer and her pastor were by her side. Also in the room was her then-estranged husband, Saeed Abedini, who had been released from an Iranian prison a few months earlier.
Panahi had spent years advocating for Abedini’s release, enlisting the help of evangelical leaders such as famed Christian lawyer Jay Sekulow and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, along with celebrities and powerful politicians who took up his cause.
Born in Iran, Panahi immigrated to the United States with her family during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. Her family converted to Christianity after arriving in the United States and eventually settled in Boise, Idaho. An aspiring missionary, she moved to Iraq in the early 2000s, where she met Abedini, a charismatic young pastor who had started a series of house churches. The two married in 2004 and later settled near Panahi’s family in Idaho.
Abedini continued to work with churches in Iran and in 2012 was jailed by the Iranian government, which claimed that those churches undermined Iran’s national security. He was sentenced to eight years in prison, becoming a symbol of the struggle for international religious freedom.
At the National Prayer Breakfast in 2015, President Obama had told attendees, “I was recently in Boise, Idaho, and had the opportunity to meet with Pastor Abedini’s beautiful wife and wonderful children and to convey to them that our country has not forgotten brother Saeed and that we’re doing everything we can to bring him home.”
But during those years of advocacy, Panahi had kept a secret. Her husband had been physically and emotionally abusive for years. And while she wanted him out of jail, she did not want him to come home unless he got help. Otherwise, she believed, her family would be in danger.
When she finally revealed that secret, Panahi told Religion News Service, few of her supporters believed her. Those who did pressed her to go to marriage counseling with Saeed, assuring her that God could work everything out.
The chief advocate of that approach in the room that day in 2016 was Franklin Graham, head of the Billy Graham Association and Samaritan’s Purse.
“There is nothing the two of you face, Naghmeh, that God can’t fix, if the two of you want it,” Graham told Panahi, urging her to go to counseling with her husband, according to a recording of that meeting.