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September 24th, 2013
06:22 PM ET

Wife of jailed American pastor lobbies Iran for his release, says her family has been 'torn apart'

His daughter just celebrated her seventh birthday, a second celebration without her father.

She asks her mother how many more birthdays until dad comes home.

"I don't know what to tell her," said her mother, Naghmeh Abedini.

It has been one year since the Iranian Revolutionary Guard took Naghmeh's husband Saeed, a U.S. citizen of Iranian birth, and threw him in a prison in Tehran.

Saeed was arrested and charged in Iran during a visit in June 2012. The 32-year-old converted to Christianity from Islam and then became a pastor, living in Boise, Idaho. He has been detained in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison since late September.

In the Islamic Republic of Iran, a Muslim who converts to another faith can face the death penalty. Saeed is currently serving an eight-year prison sentence.

Naghmeh has been fighting for his release. She flew to New York for the United Nations General Assembly, and found herself coincidentally staying in the same hotel as the new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

On Monday, she spotted Rouhani's entourage in the lobby. They were speaking Farsi, and securing the area.

She approached them, at first worried she would be arrested. Then she hand-delivered a letter to the delegation from her husband, written from inside his prison cell, pleading for his freedom.

"I was able to talk to a delegation (official) and hand Saeed's letter over to them and introduce myself, and ask them if they would make sure President Rouhani would receive a copy," said Naghmeh.

Towards the end of that letter, Saeed writes:

"My wife and children as well as over a billion Christians in the world seek God's justice in your consideration of this matter. Please take immediate action in this regard and do not let me and a lot of people in my ward become the victims of the fire that extremists have made, those who have turned Iran into a vortex of crisis. Considering the fact I came to Iran to serve the orphans, please do not let them make my children orphans and my wife without a guardian."

Iran charged Saeed with undermining the Iranian government. The basis for the charge was Christian gatherings.

The past year has been a struggle for Naghmeh and the couple's two children.

"It's been a lonely road for all of us," said Naghmeh, who said she has been traveling, campaigning for her husband's freedom. When she is away, her kids stay with other family members.

"It's been a very emotional, very trying time, especially for them. They're seven and five, and they don't understand," said Naghmeh.

Naghmeh is worried her husband will not survive his eight-year prison sentence, and said the Iranian government could add to his sentence.

The official one year anniversary of Saeed's imprisonment is September 26.

"The 26th is the one year, but the second birthdays and second Christmases remind us that really, the kids are growing up without him in our family," said Naghmeh.

"This year, they spent Father's Day alone. Graduation from kindergarten – they were alone, I was in Geneva speaking before the U.N.," said Naghmeh. "Our whole family has been torn apart physically."

Read: Wife of American pastor imprisoned in Iran says family 'struggles everyday'

The cause has received some support from the Obama administration.

Secretary of State John Kerry recently called for his release. And U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power tweeted last week, "Those missing or unjustly detained, including Amir Hekmati, Saeed Abedini, and Bob Levinson, must be returned home," referring to two other Americans being held or missing in Iran.

If Rouhani granted Naghmeh an audience, she would urge him to put his motions of moderation into action.

"I would say that this is the best platform for him to prove his words, that he is moderate, and that he wants to bring more freedom to the Iranian people, and he does want to free a lot of the political prisoners," said Naghmeh.

The best chance to start a working relationship with the U.S. "would be to release these prisoners, especially an American citizen who is imprisoned based on a simple violation of human rights, of religious freedom," said Naghmeh.

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