“God cares about the one who’s being oppressed.” “He didn’t come to save the institution of marriage.” Naghmeh Panahi.
(Naghmeh changed her name from Abedini back to Panahi after her divorce from Saeed Abedini.)
I have long followed Naghmeh’s story. In 2021, I wrote #IStandwithNaghmeh Franklin Graham Didn’t and Added More Pain to Naghmeh Panahi’s Abuse by Saeed Abedini #ChurchToo
In this post, I wrote the story of Saeed Abedini, imprisoned in Iran, and his then wife, Naghmeh, who led a campaign to free her husband. However, she was hiding much pain in her life. Saeed abused her for many years.
According to Wikipedia:
In 2002, Abedini met and married his wife Naghmeh, an American citizen. In the early 2000s, the Abedinis became prominent in the house-church movement in Iran, at a time when the Iranian government tolerated the movement. During this period, Abedini is credited with establishing about 100 house churches in 30 Iranian cities with more than 2,000 members. With the election of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad in 2005, however, the house-church movement was subjected to a crackdown by Iranian authorities, and the Abedinis moved back to the United States.
In 2008, Abedini became an ordained minister in the U.S., and in 2010, he was granted American citizenship, thus becoming a dual Iranian-American citizen. Abedini lived with his family in Boise, Idaho, where his wife grew up.
n mid-January 2013, it was reported that Abedini would go on trial on 21 January and could face the death penalty. He was charged with compromising national security, though the specific allegations were not made public. His supporters said his arrest was due to his conversion and attending peaceful Christianity gatherings in Iran. On 21 January 2013, Iranian state media reported that Abedini would be released after posting a $116,000 bond. His wife, however, stated that the government “has no intention of freeing him and that the announcement is a game to silence’ international media reports.”
On 27 January 2013, following a trial, Judge Pir-Abbasi sentenced Abedini to eight years in prison. According to Fox News, Abedini was sentenced for having “undermined the Iranian government by creating a network of Christian house churches and … attempting to sway Iranian youth away from Islam.” The evidence against Abedini was based primarily on his activities in the early 2000s. Abedini was meant to serve his time in Evin Prison.
In early November 2013, Abedini was transferred from Tehran to the Rajai Shahr prison in the town of Karaj, which was populated with heavy criminals and was known for placing prisoners in harsh (and sometimes life-threatening) conditions.
Saeed’s imprisonment was loudly condemned by the US Senate, which passed a resolution demanding his release. Franklin Graham and Jay Sekulow jumped on the advocacy bandwagon, utilizing Saeed’s wife as a voice calling for his release, while emphasizing his Christian work. But as Wikipedia says so succinctly:
In November 2015, Naghmeh Abedini began to back away from speaking out publicly for her husband’s release, telling supporters by e-mail that he had been abusive to her and she could “no longer live a lie.”
Fearing God should promote a healthy view of abuse victims in the church.
In the article on sexual ethics, Andrea Palpant Dilley explains her thoughts on the fear of God.
Fearing God means respecting his precepts and dreading his judgment when we don’t follow those precepts. As a church, then, our breach of sexual ethics goes right to the heart of our disposition toward him.
The abusers, enablers, and fixers lurking in our pulpits and pews have no healthy fear. As a result, they take their sins to the closet instead of the altar and lose the ability to discern good from evil. A simple request to help abuse survivors ends up looking like “a satanic scheme to completely distract us from evangelism,” according to a lawyer for the Southern Baptist Executive Committee.
She accurately portrays the views of many Christians-liberal and otherwise, in the following. Let’s be afraid of the gays who will destroy the church while the church is overlooking abuse.
Among the various cries, some progressives are calling out Christian conservatives for policing the issue of sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) while simultaneously dismissing abused women in their own midst.
“If the SBC hated abusers as much as they do gay people … we literally wouldn’t be having this conversation today,” tweeted Matthew Manchester in response to the recent Southern Baptist Convention report revealing widespread abuse and coverup. Others have voiced similar concerns about “a perverse double standard.”
Question: Do we fear God when we disrespect or even act against his edicts? In other words, do we believe our actions will have eternal consequences? Did the SBC leaders and pastors, who covered up sexual abuse in their friends’ churches, honestly believe in a God who will one day express holy rage at the mistreatment of the abused? Do they think that it doesn’t matter because God will forgive everything? Dilley says it well.
Fearing and respecting God requires fearing and respecting those who bear his image—and seeing violations of their bodies as violations of him and his created order. There’s no way to get around that direct corollary.
Naghmeh Panahi and Meriam Ibrahim: shared stories of domestic abuse and Christians who told them to stay with their husbands.
Look at what Naghmeh has to say about how she was treated.
“I needed someone who could have told me this is what abuse was and this was not the heart of God,” said Naghmeh Panahi in a recent CT profile about her domestic violence case.
Christianity Today profiled Naghmeh in 2022 in ‘Domestic Abuse Was Worse than Death Row.’ The article describes the supportive friendship between Naghmeh Panahi and Mariam Ibraheem.You may remember Ibraheem when she was being held on death row in Sudan.
Sudanese religious freedom activist and public speaker. Meriam Ibrahim was arrested during her second pregnancy for apostasy and gave birth to a girl in prison on 27 May 2014. Mariam Ibrahim’s case is part of a wider problem of persecution of Christians in Sudan.
Eventually, after the birth of her child in prison, she was released.
Ibrahim, the center of publicity, much like Naghmeh, was also hiding a dark secret. She was abused at home as well.
Even more so when your family is in the public eye, with happy photos and triumphant headlines hiding the distress at home.
Ibraheem said her home became “worse than death row.” The abuse by her ex-husband even echoed what she endured during her time behind bars in Sudan. “I didn’t teach my children Arabic because I didn’t want my children to know the names I was being called” during their fights at home, she recounted. It’s the same thought she had as guards insulted her while imprisoned with her newborn.
…Instead, the place she expected to be safe became dangerous; the person she expected to care for her was hurting her, and the faith she leaned on was telling her to stay.
Panahi recognized how Ibraheem had exhausted her patience trying to make an abusive marriage work, and she’s seen that pattern with other Christian women she’s helped over the years. Even when abuse persisted, they believed that marriage is for life, kids should grow up with both parents, and God could redeem the brokenness in their relationships.
Panahi began to understand that God did not want women to stay in abusive situations.
She began to see that God cared about her well-being more than preserving a marriage at any cost, and that institutions like marriage existed for the good of people and not the other way around. “The life of the person is more important than the institution,” she said. “One sheep is more important than the whole institution.”
That understanding was the key to Panahi’s escape. The God who saved her life when she was arrested at gunpoint in Iran made a way for her to find freedom from an abusive marriage in America.
Panahi helped Ibrahim to leave her abusive situation.
Panahi ended up helping Ibraheem find safe housing, legal representation, and counseling, leading to another testimony of rescue.
“God answers my prayers though people,” Ibraheem said. “God really worked miracles. When I prayed, God sent someone to help me.”
Many churches, pastors, and Christian leaders still counsel women to stay in abusive marriages.
They say the teachings that led them to justify remaining in abusive marriages as “biblical” remain widespread. When believers abroad are suffering religious persecution, Christians want to help them escape; when they’re suffering in a violent home, the message from the church too often is to stay.
…“I needed someone who could have told me this is what abuse was and this was not the heart of God,” said Panahi.
…While more leaders are speaking up to address domestic violence from the pulpit and to condemn abuse in marriage, Panahi notes they often stop short of assisting a woman with legal fees to get a divorce.
Together they have formed Tahrir Alisa Foundation, advocating for women who have suffered abuse due to religious oppression.
The website says this foundation is “Helping women escape and recover from domestic abuse and religious persecution_
Persecution brings the church together for a cause, but abuse, Panahi worries, is a bigger issue that’s doing more damage within the church. “Persecution is close to the heart of God, but what Jesus was most outspoken about was where religion is used to oppress,” she said.
Russell Moore weighed in with Divorcing an Abusive Spouse Is Not a Sin.
Sometimes the one being abused will believe that there is no other option but to stay, feeling trapped in the marriage. In the case of domestic violence, the church has a responsibility not only to alert the relevant civil authorities but also to bear the abuse sufferer’s burdens by arranging a safe place of refuge and meeting other needs.
The very least that one can expect from one’s church is not to be condemned as a sinner for escaping danger.
Recognize that abusers often weaponize spiritual language to cover the abuse. They might suggest that the abused spouses are “unforgiving” if they leave or that they would be sinning against Jesus if they were to pursue divorce—quoting out-of-context Bible verses all the while. As the steward of the oracles of God, the church has a mandate to call such misuse of the Scriptures what it is: a taking of the Lord’s name in vain, in one of the worst ways imaginable.
Divorce for domestic violence is not a sin. It’s about sin all right—but it’s the sin of the abuser, not the sin of the abused who decides to divorce.
Sadly, Franklin Graham is the poster boy for how to abuse a victim if domestic violence.
The Washington Post wrote about How Franklin Graham pushed a domestic abuse victim to return to her husband. Here are some of his actions and words that I believe were despicable in light of Naghmeh’s situation. It is essential to understand that Saeed had a history of violence before and after his divorce. In other words, Graham knew it, and, as you will see, he didn’t care. Naghmeh was part of his dog and pony show, and reputation appears more important than truth.
Abedini pleaded guilty to domestic battery, court records show, and was ordered to complete anger management sessions as part of his sentence. But two years later, as a judge would hear, Abedini vandalized his mother-in-law’s car; in 2010, he allegedly broke his father-in-law’s nose.
Here are some of Graham’s actions as listed in the Washington Post. However, the first one, in my opinion, is truly the product of a sick mind.
“Naghmeh, are you cheating on him?” he asked. Panahi replied strongly that she was not.” “It was a good question to ask,” Graham said, “and I would have asked it again.”
- I’m not saying that Saeed is not guilty of abuse,” Graham wrote to Panahi on Jan. 23, 2016, the week after Abedini’s release. “I am sure he is guilty of much more. The problem is you exposed him publicly to the whole world and embarrassed him.
- Within a week of the failed reunion, Panahi said, Graham flew Abedini to Boise on a private jet, a trip she learned about only that day when a reporter called her. She rushed to a courthouse and was granted a protection order. When Abedini arrived, she and her mother met him with the couple’s two children, who had not seen their father in three years.Then she handed over a copy of the order. Abedini left without speaking to her.
- Graham told The Post his goal was to “reconcile the differences in their marriage” and that he didn’t pressure her. He called Panahi “a dishonest woman” and “disappointing.”
- After a protection order had expired, Panahi said, during a visit with the children, Abedini grabbed their 8-year-old son by the neck when the boy didn’t clean up a water spill; Panahi took her son to a hospital, where he was put in a neck brace.
- Panahi said, she met with Graham and her husband in a hotel conference room in downtown Boise, to show she was trying to make the marriage work, even though Abedini had not met with an abuse counselor as she had requested.
Graham, who told The Post in 2020 that he knew Panahi was recording their meeting, began by noting the “tens of thousands” of dollars his ministries Samaritan’s Purse and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association had given Panahi while Abedini was in prison. (She said Graham gave her about $30,000 in honorariums for speaking engagements.)
- Graham said the marriage could “be fixed easily,” and he seemed to dismiss the severity of her abuse. “I’m not here to defend him calling you bad names, yelling at you, whatever,” he said.
“Beating me,” Panahi interjected.
Graham told her that abuse is a “gray area,”
- he dismissed the idea of abuse counselors. “You could get some godless psychiatrist,” he said.
In my original post, I listed other incidents with Franklin Graham.
- Naghmeh refused to meet with Abedini for counseling. Franklin Graham responded by sending counselors and others to her. Those who contribute to Samaritan’s Purse should see how your funds are used.”Panahi says Graham urged her to fly to Germany to meet Abedini in route to the United States. Initially, she agreed, but then said she didn’t feel safe and decided against it….on January 26, 2016, Graham flies Abedini, Abedini’s parents and sister, two counselors, and a bodyguard on a private jet owned by Samaritan’s Purse to Panahi’s home in Boise, Idaho….Who does that when I’ve told Franklin, ‘I’m afraid. Saeed has threatened to take the kids’?” Panahi said. “Who does a surprise with a bodyguard and Saeed and his parents and his sister and the marriage counselors? They show up unannounced on a private jet—like that is traumatic.”
- Graham wouldn’t quit. Looks like he needed a bodyguard when he went to these meetings.”Panahi said Graham continued to pressure her to submit to in-person marriage counseling with Abedini.In February, Panahi said Graham’s marriage counselors, Dan and Linda Stephens, who work with Samaritan’s Purse, flew to Boise to meet with Panahi’s pastor, Bob Caldwell. Panahi said the Stephenses also spoke with Panahi’s abuse counselor, Robert Needham.In August 2016, Graham called Panahi, and requested an in-person meeting between her, Abedini, and himself. Panahi said she agreed to meet, fearing that if she refused, Graham would paint her in the media as the reason the marriage failed.So, on August 9, 2016, Graham, Abedini, and Panahi had a meeting at a hotel conference room in Boise, which Panahi recorded. Also at the meeting were Panahi’s pastor, Bob Caldwell, Panahi’s lawyer, and Graham’s bodyguard.”
- …(Franklin Graham in a statement to Roys) “While I am not a licensed counselor, I did offer limited counsel—to both Naghmeh and Saeed—as a minister. . . . I do not believe it would be appropriate for me to publicly disclose advice or counsel I may have offered to this couple—other than to say it was always my sincere desire to see Naghmeh and Saeed experience Biblical reconciliation and a God-given restoration to their marriage.”
Even Anne Graham Lotz told Naghmeh that Franklin was in error. This is from my original post.
Ann Graham Lotz was contacted by Naghmeh. She supported her. Good for her.
“Franklin does not understand the deep evil that Saeed is dealing with and Saeed’s pretend humility. I spoke with Franklin today, and it seems like he believes if the woman loves enough and submits enough things will be fixed. I have learned otherwise. The more I gave in, the more abusive he became.”
Lotz responds the same day: “I totally confirm that you are to stay in Boise, where you have your network of support. You are right, Franklin does not understand. And I can also tell you, Franklin is not a good listener. Just never mind him, if that’s possible.”
My original assessment of Graham stands.
They had a cash cow on their hands. Imagine the conferences? Imagine the proceeds rolling in due to hauling these two around the world, giving talks on unjust imprisonment, especially the unjust imprisonment of a pastor due to his faith. These would include the heart-wrenching tales of a wife and children separated from Saeed. The dollar sign seemed to be front and center. I also wonder if promises were made to some potential donors a priori.
I believe that Franklin Graham’s actions are highly questionable and would encourage folks to read this account before giving money to his ministry.
Naghmeh said it best in The Washington Post article.
“God cares about the one who’s being oppressed,” she said. “He didn’t come to save the institution of marriage.”
Recent video of Naghmeh
Julie Roys has done a great job o highlighting Naghmen’s abuse. Here is Naghmeh’s talk at Restore 2022. “Overcoming the Idol of Marriage.”