Three days after an Iranian court rejected an appeal to reduce the eight-year prison sentence imposed on an American pastor, Secretary of State John Kerry broke his silence on the fate of Saeed Abedini and two other Americans imprisoned in Iran.
Kerry said in a statement released by the State Department Thursday that the U.S. "respectfully asks the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran to work cooperatively with us in our efforts to help U.S. citizens Robert Levinson, Amir Hekmati, and Saeed Abedini to return to their families after lengthy detentions."
Abedini was sentenced to eight years in prison on charges of endangering national security, but his supporters say he was in Iran working to build an orphanage with permission of the Iranian government.
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Supporters of Abedini, including the Rev. Franklin Graham and members of Congress, have called on the Obama administration to help seek his release. Kerry issued a statement in March saying the "best outcome for Mr. Abedini is that he be immediately released," but the administration had not commented further.
Jordan Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which is representing Abedini and his family, said Kerry's statement was "an important diplomatic step in the effort for his freedom."
Sekulow said while he welcomed the "renewed involvement and effort initiated by Secretary Kerry to bring Pastor Saeed -- a U.S. citizen imprisoned for his faith -- back home to his wife and young children," he said that the Obama administration needed to do more.
In the statement released to Newsmax, Sekulow called for President Barack Obama to make the imprisonment of Americans in Iran a priority.
Sekulow said that "paper statements alone will not bring about his freedom" and urged Obama to become engaged.
Obama has yet to comment on the fate of the three Americans.
"Pastor Saeed's case deserves the attention and commitment of President Obama who can raise Pastor Saeed's case to the highest level of international diplomacy. We call on President Obama to elevate Senator Kerry's statements and urge Iran to allow Pastor Saeed to return home to his family," Sekulow said.
Abedini's wife Naghmeh also issued a statement saying she was thankful for Kerry's remarks. However, she added: "I still expect my president, President Obama, who has remained silent thus far, to speak out on this very critical human rights issue and let the Iranian government and the world know that religious freedom is still a top priority for our government."
"President Obama must demonstrate that America will not stay silent in the face of religious persecution, nor will it let an American citizen waste away in an Iranian prison simply because he chose to follow Jesus," she said.
Also mentioned in the Kerry statement was retired FBI agent Robert "Bob" Levinson, who was taken hostage on March 9, 2007 while he was researching a cigarette smuggling case on Iran’s Kish Island.
His hometown of Coral Springs, Fla., passed a resolution this week to publicize his imprisonment. On Thanksgiving, he will become the longest held hostage ever in American history.
Amir Hekmati, a former Marine and native of Flint, Michigan, has been in prison since 2011 on allegations that he is a spy. Initially sentenced to death, an appellate court overturned the sentence due to a lack of evidence. Like Abedini, he has been held in Tehran's Evin Prison, one of the most brutal of Iran's facilities.
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Kerry urged Iran to cooperate to release Abedini and Hekmati and to "locate Mr. Levinson so that they may be reunited with their families as safely and as soon as possible."
Kerry has been under intense pressure from Abedeni's family, as well as from members of Congress, who have grown frustrated with the administration's inaction.
"I hope that the American people will hold the Obama administration and State Department accountable for its absolutely criminal silence in the face of such a heartless injustice forced upon this beloved American pastor," Rep. Trent Franks, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said earlier this week before Kerry issued his statement on the matter.
Franks said the State Department has responded with "deafening and cowardly silence" and "should be utterly ashamed of its failure to speak out on behalf of Saeed Abedini and his precious family."