(CNSNews.com) – An Iranian court on Sunday sentenced Iranian-born American pastor Saeed Abedini – a convert from Islam to Christianity – to eight years’ imprisonment for “threatening the national security of Iran” by leading underground house churches, according to a U.S. religious organization closely involved in the case.
The 32-year-old from Boise, Idaho was convicted four months after being arrested while visiting family in Iran. The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) says Abedini has been assaulted and mistreated while in custody in Iran’s notorious Evin prison.
The State Department and ACLJ have also raised concerns about the conduct of his trial, saying Abedini’s lawyer was given little time to prepare and was excluded from some of the proceedings.
ACLJ executive director Jordan Sekulow called the case “a mockery of justice.”
“Iran has not only abused its own laws, it has trampled on the fundamentals of human rights,” he said in a statement.
“We call on governments around the world to stand and defend Pastor Saeed,” Sekulow added, urging the U.S. government “to engage further” in pressing for the release of an American citizen facing a lengthy prison term “simply because of his Christian faith.”
Tehran’s treatment of a U.S. citizen is a brazen challenge to Washington as President Obama begins his second term and Sen. John Kerry prepares to assume the helm at the State Department.
Rather than settle the case quietly, the authorities handed it to a Revolutionary Court judge who has been sanctioned by the European Union for handing down the death penalty or long jail terms to rights activists convicted after the disputed 2009 presidential election.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in its 2012 annual report identified the official, Abbas Pir-Abbassi, as a judge “responsible for particularly severe violations of religious freedom.”
Sekulow noted that Revolutionary Court convictions and sentence need top approval. “Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei had to sign off” on the case, he said.
Sunday’s development came two days after the State Department and White House called on Iran to release an American citizen “detained in Iran on charges related to his religious beliefs.”
“We condemn Iran’s continued violation of the universal rights of freedom of religion, and we call on the Iranian authorities to respect Mr. Abedini’s human rights and to release him,” said State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland. White House press secretary Jay Carney made an almost-identical appeal during his daily press briefing.
Earlier, members of the House of Representatives and U.S. Senate signed letters urging the State Department to exhaust all efforts to secure Abedini’s release and safe return home, while almost 250,000 people have signed an ACLJ petition on his behalf.The Iranian regime denies discriminating against non-Muslims.
“Iran is a land with diverse ethnic and religious communities that live side by side with different traditions, customs and languages,” it said in a major report presented to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva in 2010. “The Iranian society is a successful model of brotherly and peaceful coexistence.”
The report said “recognized religious minorities” – Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians – are allowed to organize and practice, “provided they do not violate the principles of independence, freedom, national unity, the criteria of Islam, or the basis of the Islamic Republic.”
Abedini, an ordained evangelical pastor, helped to lead house churches in Iran before moving to the U.S. in 2005. He was granted citizenship in 2010 through marriage to his American wife, Naghmeh, also a convert from Islam. They have a six year-old daughter and a four year-old son.