Naghmeh Panahi
When Naghmeh Panahi revealed her former husband's abusive behavior, few who had stood with her believed her. (Photo courtesy)

Millions Wanted to ‘Save Saeed.’ Few Wanted to Help His Abused Ex-Wife.

By Bob Smietana

In the summer of 2016, Naghmeh Panahi sat in a room with one of the most powerful ministers in America to discuss the fate of her marriage.

Both her lawyer and her pastor were by her side. Also in the room was her then-estranged husband, Saeed Abedini, who had been released from an Iranian prison a few months earlier.

Panahi had spent years advocating for Abedini’s release, enlisting the help of evangelical leaders such as famed Christian lawyer Jay Sekulow and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, along with celebrities and powerful politicians who took up his cause. 

Born in Iran, Panahi immigrated to the United States with her family during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. Her family converted to Christianity after arriving in the United States and eventually settled in Boise, Idaho. An aspiring missionary, she moved to Iraq in the early 2000s, where she met Abedini, a charismatic young pastor who had started a series of house churches. The two married in 2004 and later settled near Panahi’s family in Idaho.

Abedini continued to work with churches in Iran and in 2012 was jailed by the Iranian government, which claimed that those churches undermined Iran’s national security. He was sentenced to eight years in prison, becoming a symbol of the struggle for international religious freedom.

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At the National Prayer Breakfast in 2015, President Obama had told attendees, “I was recently in Boise, Idaho, and had the opportunity to meet with Pastor Abedini’s beautiful wife and wonderful children and to convey to them that our country has not forgotten brother Saeed and that we’re doing everything we can to bring him home.”

But during those years of advocacy, Panahi had kept a secret. Her husband had been physically and emotionally abusive for years. And while she wanted him out of jail, she did not want him to come home unless he got help. Otherwise, she believed, her family would be in danger.

When she finally revealed that secret, Panahi said, few of her supporters believed her. Those who did pressed her to go to marriage counseling with Saeed, assuring her that God could work everything out.

The chief advocate of that approach in the room that day in 2016 was Franklin Graham, head of the Billy Graham Association and Samaritan’s Purse.

Franklin Graham Saeed Naghmeh Panahi
Saeed Abedini, center, the Iranian-American pastor released last weekend from Iran, is greeted by his parents, sister and Franklin Graham, left, after arriving on Jan. 21, 2016 in the United States. (Photo by David K. Morrison, courtesy of Samaritan’s Purse)

“There is nothing the two of you face, Naghmeh, that God can’t fix, if the two of you want it,” Graham told Panahi, urging her to go to counseling with her husband, according to a recording of that meeting.

When she balked, saying her husband needed to deal with his abusive behavior, Graham dismissed the idea of going to a “godless psychiatrist” for help with abuse, she said. All Panahi needed to do was to follow Graham’s advice.

“This can be fixed,” he told her. “And it can be fixed, easy. If you want it.”

The recording of the 2016 meeting recently became public on a podcast by The Roys Report. Panahi talked with host Julie Roys about the pushback she got for a social media post about an abusive pastor in her adopted state of Idaho. Some of her social followers wanted her to take the post down, Panahi said, arguing that conversations about abuse painted the church in a bad light.

Abedini has long denied any abusive behavior, despite pleading guilty in 2007 to domestic abuse for which he was given a year’s probation. Court records from the couple’s divorce also showed a pattern of abusive behavior. In 2018, he was arrested for violating a no-contact order. 

Saeed Abedini Franklin Graham
Saeed Abedini, right, the Iranian-American pastor released from Iran, is greeted by Franklin Graham, left, after arriving Jan. 21, 2016 in the United States. (Photo by David K. Morrison, courtesy of Samaritan’s Purse)

He said in an interview that he is working on a book entitled “Against the Powers,” which he claims will vindicate him. He claimed that he has been the victim of false allegations and was betrayed by Graham and others who once rallied to his cause.

“I never saw anyone be a used and abused person like myself,” said Abedini, who declined to say where he was other than outside the United States. A Muslim call to prayer could be heard echoing behind him as he spoke.

Abedini also said God had forgiven all his sins, even though he was not worthy. But instead of criticizing him, Abedini said that his former wife and critics ought to be praying for him and building him up. Tearing down his reputation, he said, was not God’s way.

Panahi heard a lot about protecting Saeed’s reputation after she made her allegations known, she said. She was told that by going public with her story of abuse, she had put Saeed in danger and was a poor witness to the Christian faith. Other supporters, meanwhile, felt betrayed that she had kept the abuse secret.

Panahi said she loved her ex-husband and wanted him to change. But he would not. And she could not reconcile with him unless he got help.

“You guys want a happy ending photo, but what’s going to happen after that? I’m going to live with this man and my life is going to be in danger,” she recalled telling Graham. “When all of the cameras go away, it’s going to be me that has to deal with this.”

Naghmeh Panahi
Naghmeh Abedini, wife of imprisoned Iranian-American minister Saeed Abedini, at a Capitol Hill hearing on religious minorities in Iran on March 15, 2013. (RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks.)

The message that God can fix abuse is common in churches, says Justin Holcomb, an Episcopal priest who teaches clergy how to care for domestic abuse survivors. 

While both survivors and abusers need counseling, said Holcomb, that counseling should not be done together. Survivors need safety, hope and healing. Abusers need to learn how to stop their abusive behavior and to take responsibility for their actions.

“They have forfeited their right to remain married,” he said.

Unfortunately, Holcomb said, many pastors and clergy focus too much on keeping marriages together and not enough on survivors’ safety. That leads religious women to stay in situations where they are unsafe, seeing it as an act of faith.

Y Joon Choi
Y. Joon Choi. (Photo courtesy of University of Georgia)

University of Georgia professors Y. Joon Choi and Pamela Orpinas recently teamed up on a project to train pastors on how to best respond to domestic abuse. Choi, an associate professor of social work, and Orpinas, a professor of health promotion and behavior, designed a series of online training modules for clergy of Korean American churches, which they hope will become a model for other church leaders.

Instead of trying to give advice, Choi suggests, clergy need to listen and then connect survivors with the help they need. As part of their training project, the scholars connected Korean pastors to local agencies that assist abuse survivors, something they hope churches and agencies in other communities will do.

“The best thing for you is to be there and listen to them and believe them,” said Choi.

Mariam Ibraheem, a friend of Panahi’s and co-founder of the Tahrir Alnisa Foundation, a small nonprofit that assists women facing domestic abuse, said Christian leaders often feel they need to investigate allegations of abuse before they can act. That can send a message to survivors that they are not trustworthy, said Ibraheem. Instead, clergy can offer help.

“You don’t need to hear two sides of the story when someone comes and tells you, ‘I’m abused and suffering,’” she said.

Naghmeh Panahi Mariam Ibraheem
Naghmeh Panahi (left) and Mariam Ibraheem. (Courtesy photo)

Ibraheem first met Panahi in 2014, when they were both in the religious freedom spotlight. A Sudanese immigrant, Ibraheem had been jailed in her home country for apostasy and was sentenced to death. After worldwide outcry, she was released from prison and moved to the United States.

When she faced trouble in her own marriage, she turned to Panahi for help. The two later decided to work together on the issue of domestic abuse, which Ibraheem said is often misunderstood by churches.   

Choi and Orpinas stress that women in immigrant communities, such as their Korean American subjects, face particular challenges when dealing with abuse. They often have few outside resources and may face cultural taboos when it comes to divorce or speaking about problems in their marriages. That makes it hard to come forward to get help.

Graham declined to answer specific questions about his interactions with Panahi. In a statement, he said that she had come to him for help when her husband was imprisoned and that he agreed to do “everything I possibly could to help them.” That included sharing the family story in the media and helping them with expenses.

“While they were still married, I advocated for and hoped for Biblical reconciliation and a God-given restoration to their marriage, but sadly that did not happen,” he said in an email statement. “Those trying to help Naghmeh and Saeed were working with incomplete, changing, and conflicting information from both of them. For years she had been advocating for the reuniting of her family, and we were doing all that we could to make that happen.”

Panahi said that her experiences with Graham and other pastors have made it hard for her to trust Christian leaders and organizations. The pastor who advised her during her meeting with Graham ended up resigning in disgrace. Other leaders she once looked up to have fallen as well. 

“It’s very difficult for me to step into a church,” she said.

The Roys Report Podcasts with Naghmeh Panahi:

Bob SmietanaBob Smietana is a national reporter for Religion News Service. 

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20 thoughts on “Millions Wanted to ‘Save Saeed.’ Few Wanted to Help His Abused Ex-Wife.”

  1. What a picture of abuse from the famed clergy Graham!

    I have absolute devotion to His faith my faith Christianity

    But respect grit Graham? Absolutely nothing !

    The guy is more interested in his fame and glory than anything Else!

    He wanted book deals movie contracts and of course fame!

    Graham is a compromised hypocrite ! This guy hangs wit TBN a RV station that hosts a den of wolves iscdgeros clothing because that’s where the hip and Christian [..] superstars hang

    And this Saeed guy [..] using his beautiful wife to promote his own fame !

    Praise God for this journalist who is exposing the rot within God’s House!

    Prayers and Thanks for Naghmeh and her children ! This is a true Christian that shows the love of God and her heart for God’s heart reaching out to the lost!

    Graham a compromised spoiled brat living off daddy’s name flying his jets getting his 7 figure salary and paying a price for Christ!!???

    This wolf is using Christ’s good name to promote his fame not the other way around

    Jesus warned beware when all manner if men speak well if you for so did the false prophets of old !

    God is at work judging and purging His House starting at the top with the likes of Graham a spoiled brat and a total back stabber

    His judgment is clearly read in the scriptures !

    For what you have done to the least if these you have done to me !!

    Graham you have done much harm! I fear your judgment !

    1. Tim, Perfectly said. I no longer view evangelicals by any measure other than there lifestyle. During covid and working from home for many months had a lot of TV time. A lot of YouTube. I was shocked at how many times I watched someone for inspiration and within ten minutes went “what you call yourself a Christian “. A lot of greed and narcissism and self promotion. Especially the self claimed prophets. Yikes lots and lots of wolfs steering our sisters and brothers astray.

    2. Remember that Graham flew cross-county to meet (and bully) Nagmeh in his private jet.
      (Never give money to a preacher-man who has a private jet.)
      Because Nagmeh refused to Get With The Program on the Official Story of Saeed’s miraculous rescue from Persecution.

  2. Richard Stadter

    I find this article disappointing, unless it’s purpose is to create a crisis in the church, and to cast doubt on Christian personalities.
    I have listened to and read most of the things related to this, and see no impure motive involved.
    Proverbs 18:7 should be considered, and considering no open charges of abuse were made for years,and that efforts continued to be made for his release, it is reasonable to have her charges create some questions. The quote in the article that allegations don’t need to be verified is contrary to the proverb’s guidance, and perpetuates gullible myths.
    Julie Roy’s, what is your purpose in this effort? Is it pure? Bob Smietana, what is your Christian testimony?What is your purpose?

    1. So, you see no problem with pressuring abused wives to reconcile with their abusive husbands? This is precisely the viewpoint that causes women to return to unsafe environments and be abused again and again. This comment, and the attitude behind it, is why I published this article.

      1. Julie

        Been thinking . Only a fool would be so callous as this “Richard” guy?

        This sounds more like what Saeed would say ?????

        Just sayin … The guy is a jealous maniac and more than likely a sociopath

        For his ex is getting the attention and respect that he lustfully desires

        In any event just a thought that hit me

    2. Carolyn McLaren

      Richard, I propose you thoroughly research the topic of abused wives. To only use Proverbs 18:7 as your defense shows not only your ignorance but also your lack of knowledge of Jesus’ view of abused women. Dig a little deeper into your theology.

      Julie Roy’s efforts to expose darkness are remarkable and much needed.

        1. I thought Carolyn was quite respectful given the pain and suffering that Naghmeh endured. I think she told Richard what he needed to hear.

        2. Carolyn you are doing just fine ! Many would tell Jesus to be more Christ like while he was tipping over tables in the temple and making whips to chase out the false religious merchandisers

          And then Jesus having the audacity to call the leaders Names!!

          Much harsher than you !

          Keep calling out the fakes !! Good job !

    3. Richard, “The quote in the article that allegations don’t need to be verified”, I read as something said from the point of view of providing first-order support; and in that regard I would fully endorse this understanding.
      Regards Bob’s inclusion of the quote in a polemical piece critiquing FG and the Church and Churches he is taken to represent, the quote is not applicable. I guess Bob incorporated this quote without its authors having sight of what Bob has done with the quote. Whenever claims of abuse are made, or critigue of Church or its personalities or practices is made, the voices of those other entities must be heard.
      So the fault here is Bob’s rather than Julies. In conflating advocacy for abuse survivors and critique of Church personalities and practices, Bob has inadvertently muddied the waters or reasoning. Commitment to a good cause (protecting women and minors and all from abuse, caring for survivors of all abuse) can do that; so something we can forgive.
      Perhaps none of us should be making Naghmeh’s story into a resource for our own projects, however admirable those projects might be

    4. Tim, I judge your response to Richard to be unsafe. The dangers of extreme internet responses has been much talked about. The risk of damaging the person made subject to such responses, is very real.

    5. What a lousy attitude! Wanting no accountability comes from the Evil One. There is nothing Christian about that. Protect the rich abusive ones masquerading as believers. We need a whole lot less of that!

  3. There are so many lies told about how to deal with cheating, lying, and/ or abusive spouses. Churches do not know how to handle this at all.
    Personally I loved Billy Graham, but I think Franklin is a fame- and wealth-seeker. Why should anyone give him a penny?

  4. Susan Vonder Heide

    Whenever we as outsiders are looking at somebody else’s marriage (perhaps not from any particular nosiness but just because of the fact that a situation has become very public), we should beware of the trap of believing the partner with more charisma or the partner with more influential friends, and ignoring the fact that it is quite possible, and certainly far from impossible, that that the smoothest partner is the one very much in the wrong.

  5. There’s a very simple rule when it comes to abusers of all kinds:

    “Once an abuser, always an abuser.”

    It doesn’t matter if the victim was a child, a woman, or a man.

    If you want to prove yourself to be one of those very rare exceptions to that rule, you must (a) fully admit to your culpability, (b) move heaven and earth to earn back your victim’s trust and forgiveness, for as long as it takes, even if it takes years, and (c) accept that it never be enough to fully heal the relationship and return to as things were before.

    What you don’t do is deny everything and play the victim card, like Saeed has done.

  6. Steven Simonyi-Gindele

    Saeed(the husband) is a wife beater and adulterer. A person acting that way is both a criminal and a false teacher. Saeed, like other “wolves in sheep’s clothing “ abuses the trust of everyone around him including Franklin Graham. I am sure Saeed received many tens of thousands of dollars from Franklin. The problem is that church leaders do not understand the mentality of a predator like Saeed and fall for his lies. The Muslim call to prayer was probably a recording. It’s was refreshing to read Nagmeh’s resolve to resist being with her husband until he truly repented. He chose divorce. I am sure Saeed is not supporting his kids.

  7. Bob titles this article: “Millions Wanted to ‘Save Saeed.’ Few Wanted to Help His Abused Ex-Wife.”

    The implicit connection between millions wanting to save, and the millions-few who do not want to help; is a suggestion of patriarchy and chauvinism implicit in the theology (and faith and practices, so the whole existential socio-cultural package) on which FG and those Churches he is taken to represent, rely and espouse.
    The thesis this suggestion attaches to, is central to a project to see Christianity and its Churches reformed.

    Various legitimate questions arise. Is the suggestion about the millions and the few, empirically valid. Is the polemical strategy the article speaks to, going to be effective in seeing Christianity and Church reformed. Is there a risk that legitimate activism (the protection of women and all from abuse, and the calling out of abuse and what mediates or protects it) shades into a zealousness which puts the intent at reformation at some risk. Just who is the reformation impulse intending to win over as allies; is the strategy of Bob’s article indicative of what might win over women whose Christian faith is associated with the Churches the reformation impulse is condemning. What happens to mutual humility which often serves to allow for fruitful discussion of differences.

    Many in those Churches will struggle to get past a sense of their Churches and leaders having been mislead by both parties to this tragically troubled marriage. I have to work hard to engender sympathy for Saeed (as depicted), and am readily supportive of Naghmed. I struggle to imagine what the children of this marriage are being put through. However such sympathies should never get in the way of rational and fair consideration of a circumstance.

  8. Jesus says in Matt.5:32 “But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.
    The fact that Saheed divorced Panahi for no valid reason shows that he is not commanded by the truth of God’s Word but by his own sinful desires. Jesus says in Matt.7:15 that ” A tree is known by it’s fruit.” Saheed by his actions is showing that he is not a real believer or he would have made every effort to reconcile with his wife.

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