In July 2012, Naghmeh Abedini's life changed in an instant. Her husband Saeed, an Iranian-born American pastor, was arrested in Iran for his involvement with house churches. After two months of interrogation under torture, he was charged with threatening the security of the state and sentenced to eight years in Iran's notorious Evin prison. He was later moved to Rajai Shahr prison, just outside of Karaj, where he has been ever since. Reports suggest that he has experienced brutal treatment in prison, with regular beatings as well as receiving death threats from radical Muslim prisoners.
When Saeed was first taken, Naghmeh – who lives in Boise, Idaho, with their two children Jacob and Rebekkah – says she felt only anger. "I cursed his captors, I wanted God's judgement," she said in an extended interview with Christian Today. "But over the next few months I prayed to God and read through the Psalms. I read David's call 'God destroy my enemies', and the Lord touched my heart and said 'That's not the way – I want you to look at [Saeed's captors] in a different way, in the way that I see them.'"
Learning to forgive those who are thought to be persecuting her husband has been a long journey, but Naghmeh is steadfast in her response. She says the past three years have bought her closer to God than ever, and "spiritually, it is the best time in my life". She has nevertheless campaigned tirelessly for Saeed's release, even securing a private meeting with US President Barack Obama in January 2015. The President assured her that the situation was a top priority for his administration, though Naghmeh revealed to Christian Today that she actually spent much of the 10-minute meeting sharing her faith, rather than talking about her husband's incarceration.
"It was encouraging for President Obama to meet with me, not just for me but for millions of Christians who've been watching the situation and praying," she said.
"I knew he was avoiding the meeting so as not to upset the Iranian government, and so to have met with me – I see God's hand in it. [But] I felt the Lord telling me this meeting is more for President Obama".
Despite having hundreds of questions about Saeed, every time Naghmeh went to say something she felt God leading her to use the time to minister to the President.
"He [Obama] was surprised that I spent the time sharing God, and telling him that we as Christians pray for him and love him," she said. "I was able to share God's love with him, and it was a good time for making a personal connection."
An online petition calling for Saeed's release now has almost 250,000 signatures, and his is one of the most famous persecution cases in the world. Naghmeh believes it is this profile that has kept him alive so far – many people he studied alongside at Bible college have been killed, and Iran remains one of the most dangerous places to be a Christian. Despite a government promise to protect religious minorities, believers are constantly under threat.
Yet Naghmeh is adamant that God is at work throughout the country. Saeed, raised a devout Muslim, was radicalised as a young man and pursued by Hezbollah as part of a recruitment drive. He was planning to murder a Christian pastor then take his own life when a chance meeting with local Christians led to his acceptance of Christ, and later an encounter with Jesus during which he heard an audible voice calling him to preach the Gospel.
Naghmeh and Saeed first met not long after, when she moved back to Iran from the US in her early 20s and met him at a house church. Their married life as Christians in Iran was not easy, however, and the two were regularly arrested and interrogated by suspicious authorities.
Once, after picking up a teenage prostitute and sharing their faith with her, they were pulled over by police who got into their car and drove them to an alleyway in the middle of nowhere. Fearing that they would be killed, Naghmeh prayed for a sign that God was with them.
Almost immediately, a young boy, about nine or ten years old, opened the car door. "He wasn't afraid of the guards. My [head] covering had been out of the door, so he pushed my clothes back in and then looked at me and said 'Everything is going to be okay.' Then he closed the door and was gone," she recalls.
"That was the first time that I felt like maybe I had been visited by an angel – we don't know when we are entertaining angels."
Saeed had been sharing his faith with the guard in the front seat of the car, who was so taken aback that he let them go. Just before he left, he asked them for a Bible.
Naghmeh has many similar stories of escaping detention, but the family fear that Saeed's current sentence may not end, even when his eight years are up. The Iranian authorities have threatened to keep adding on charges because of his refusal to deny his faith, and his beatings continue. He is currently suffering from a stomach wound, though Naghmeh says he is slowly recovering. She cannot visit him – Iranian officials say she would immediately be imprisoned upon entering the country – but Saeed's parents are able to visit each week, and they have been allowed to exchange letters.
Despite the horrific situation, Naghmeh's faith is unwavering. "When I've had little trials in life I've always got mad at God, but this trial was so intense that when I found out Saeed had been taken, I couldn't run away from God. I felt like I was going into this dark hole of despair, and if I didn't reach out to God, then I would just die," she says.
"I was so weak, so anxious, so worried and so full of despair, and I remember my mom kneeling in front of me saying, 'How can I help', and it was then I realised that no human being could help me...I always [wondered if there would be] a trial that could make me question the goodness of God, but this was so deep, that I had to discover Christ in a more intimate way."
It is this hope in God that gives her the strength to get out of bed each morning, and keeps her going. "The peace that surpasses all understanding washes over me every day....This trial has allowed me to taste God in a way I've never tasted him before, and say 'Yes, he is good,'" she says.
"I don't know how to explain it. I've discovered that God doesn't say we won't go through trials, he says his followers will be persecuted, tortured, killed and imprisoned, but he will be there with us every step of the way. In prison Saeed has no fellowship and no Bible, but he has Jesus Christ.
"I've discovered Christ in such a way that I can't question his goodness, I can only say come and see that God is good; he is, I've tasted him. This trial has not made me question his goodness, it's helped me to discover it."