The United States religious freedom watchdog commission is calling for the release of Saeed Abedeni, an Iranian-American pastor who will stand trial and possibly face the death penalty next week for national security crimes related to his faith in Iran.
On Wednesday, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent federal body that monitors religious freedom abroad and makes recommendations to the president, urged the Iranian government to release the pastor.
"The national security charges leveled against Mr. Abedini are bogus and are a typical tactic by the Iranian government to masquerade the real reason for the charges: to suppress religious belief and activity of which the Iranian government does not approve," said USCIRF chair Katrina Lantos Swett in a statement. "USCIRF calls on the Iranian government to release Mr. Abedini immediately and unconditionally."
Abedini, who holds dual citizenship in the United States and Iran, was arrested in September 2012 while finalizing plans for a government-approved orphanage in Iran. The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), a Washington D.C.-based religious liberty watchdog which is monitoring his case, said that Abedini was arrested for his involvement with house churches dating back to 2000, the year he converted from Islam to Christianity.
Abedini will stand trial for charges of national security on January 21 before Judge Abbas Pir-Abbassi, who is notorious for "swift trials" and sentencing people to death by hanging, according to Swett.
The USCIRF statement was released on Wednesday, National Religious Freedom Day in the United States. The same day, leaders in Congress sent a letter to the Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, urging her to help in the release of Abedini ahead of his trial.
"Saeed's efforts to provide humanitarian relief and exercise fundamental human rights should be applauded, not condemned," the letter reads. "We should not stand idly by while the Iranian regime arbitrarily persecutes a U.S. citizen who has committed no crime."
When White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was asked Wednesday about Pastor Saaed Abedini, his response was: "I don't have a statement."
Last year, USCIRF and Congress were successful in contributing to international pressure on Iran to release Iranian pastor Youcef Nardarkhani, who was also jailed for similar crimes as Abedini.
The ACLJ has released a letter Abedini wrote to his wife and two kids, who returned back to United States without him:
"This is the process in my life today: one day I am told I will be freed and allowed to see my kids on Christmas (which was a lie) and the next day I am told I will hang for my faith in Jesus," Abedini said in the letter. "One day there are intense pains after beatings in interrogations, the next day they are nice to you and offer you candy."