Iran deal: persecuted church 'left behind'
VIENNA (BP) -- The nuclear deal struck by Iran and six world powers led by the United States has drawn criticism from evangelicals for its potential ill effects on Israel and persecuted Christians in the Persian nation.
The American Center for Law and Justice lamented that the deal, which was announced today (July 14) in Vienna following 20 months of negotiations, apparently does not include the release of American pastor Saeed Abedini from an Iranian prison.
Johnny Hunt, a former Southern Baptist Convention president who has led First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Ga., to do extensive mission work in Iran, said the Obama administration's willingness to negotiate with Iranian leaders likely encourages the regime to continue persecuting Christians and threatening Israel.
"I fear for Israel and other Middle Eastern countries in light of Iran's hatred of Israel along with their many threats," Hunt told Baptist Press in written comments. "I find it so difficult for us as a nation to trust nations that are publicly known for their religious persecution. The lack of accountability of Iran in light of all their inconsistencies with the United Nations leads me to believe that [America's diplomatic engagement with Iran poses] an even greater risk to Iran's growing Christian Underground Church."
Hunt added, "Every concerned citizen should be asking, 'What has changed in Iran's behavior that has led us to believe they can be trusted in a nuclear deal?'"
According to The New York Times, the deal requires Iran to maintain a 98-percent reduced stockpile of low enriched uranium for the next 15 years, reduce by two-thirds the number of centrifuges spinning at the nation's primary enrichment center and continue to limit its acquisition of conventional weapons among other provisions.
In exchange, the U.S. and the international community will lift oil and financial sanctions on Iran -- a move expected to generate between $300 to $400 billion for Iran's economy, according to the Heritage Foundation, a think tank that promotes traditional values.
President Obama celebrated the deal in a White House address, saying without the accord Iran and its neighbors would be more likely to pursue a nuclear arms race.
"This deal is not built on trust. It is built on verification," Obama said according to a transcript of his remarks published by the Associated Press. "Inspectors will have 24/7 access to Iran's nuclear facilities. [They] will have access to Iran's entire nuclear supply chain, its uranium mines and mills, its conversion facility and its centrifuge manufacturing and storage facilities.
"This ensures that Iran will not be able to divert materials from known facilities to covert ones," Obama said. "Some of these transparency measures will be in place for 25 years."
Republicans in Congress expressed skepticism regarding the deal as did Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Congress will have 60 days to review the deal and either approve or disapprove of it. Obama said he will veto "any legislation that prevents the successful implementation of this deal."
The Times said "Obama's chances of ultimately prevailing are considered high."
Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he questions "whether the deal actually meets the goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon."
Sen. James Lankford, a Southern Baptist and Oklahoma Republican, said Iran remains "the world's largest state-sponsor of terrorism." Iran's leadership, he said, "is a threat to its neighbors and the world, therefore we should closely analyze and debate this deal before any sanctions relief occurs."
Netanyahu called the deal a "historic mistake," according to the Jerusalem Post. The agreement will result in "hundreds of billions of dollars" pouring into Iran that can be used to fund terrorism and aggression toward neighboring states, Netanyahu said.
"It is impossible to prevent an agreement when the negotiators are willing to make more and more concessions to those who chant 'Death to America' even during the negotiations," Netanyahu said in an apparent reference to U.S. negotiators.
Leaders in Iran and Syria both welcomed news of the deal.
Iranian President Hassan Rohani said, "Thank God, I have fulfilled my election promise to try and solve the nuclear crisis. We are a few steps away from the peak.... Even if the process stops now, we have performed our duty," the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad suggested he expects more support from Iran in his war against insurgents following the nuclear deal announcement.
"We are confident that the Islamic Republic of Iran will support, with greater drive, just causes of nations and work for peace and stability in the region and the world," Assad said according to Haaretz. He said in a separate statement, "The coming days will see momentum in the constructive role played by the Islamic Republic of Iran in supporting for [sic] the rights of people and the laying of the foundation stones for amiable relations between nations for the good of humanity."
Bryant Wright, pastor of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga., and a former SBC president, said the deal is alarming because it appears to endanger Israel and do nothing to help Iran's persecuted Christians. Johnson Ferry heard testimonies at its MOVE Conference earlier this year from two Iranian believers who were imprisoned for distributing Bibles.
"History shows that when you try to appease evil, it often winds up creating more problems rather than bringing about good," Wright told BP. He added that Netanyahu's objections to the deal are "of great concern" because "the world is becoming so much more anti-Semitic, so much more hostile to Israel."
Wright is concerned for Iranian Christians in the wake of the deal announcement because "so far, nothing I've heard indicates there will be a greater freedom and a greater sense of justice for those who are suffering unjustly there in Iran for their faith."
Jay Sekulow, chief counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice, said it is egregious that Abedini, who has been imprisoned since 2012 for his Christian faith, has been "left behind" by U.S. negotiators.
"It is unconscionable that the Obama Administration would sign a deal with Iran without securing the freedom of Pastor Saeed who has been imprisoned for nearly three years simply because of his Christian faith," Sekulow said in an ACLJ news release. "President Obama told the Abedini family face-to-face that he considered the release of Pastor Saeed a 'top priority.' How could that be a 'top priority' when a deal is reached and Pastor Saeed is left behind? What happened today makes a bad deal even worse. We will now focus our attention on convincing Congress to reject this deal."
Abedini's wife Naghmeh also asked Congress to reject the deal and insist that Iran release her husband along with other imprisoned American citizens.
"I plead with each member of Congress to review the deal with our family at the forefront of their thoughts," Naghmeh Abedini said according to the ACLJ release. "Congress holds the key to bringing my husband home, to returning the father to my children. My children have desperately missed the loving embrace of their father for the last three years of their lives. They have grown up almost half of their lives without their father. Please help us ensure the remainder of their childhood includes both a mother and a father."
Naghmeh Abedini tweeted that the "State Department has not provided any assurance of Saeed's release. The Lord has been preparing me for this."
SBC President Ronnie Floyd echoed the call for Saeed Abedini's release in written comments to BP.
"While still learning more about this deal made with Iran, I stand appalled that we would make any kind of deal that would not demand the immediate release of the four Americans held hostage, including Pastor Saeed Abedini," said Floyd, pastor of Cross Church in northwest Arkansas. "Additionally, I am concerned for the safety of the people of Israel, America's great ally. All of this calls the church to rise up and pray for the peace of Jerusalem, as well as recommit ourselves to the evangelization of the world."
Phillip Bethancourt, executive vice president of Southern Baptists' Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, tweeted that he is "praying for @NaghmehAbedini and her children this morning after the #IranDeal announcement."
The Heritage Foundation tweeted what it views as problems with the deal. Among them, "We gave Iran a better deal than we give our allies" and "Nuclear inspectors can only inspect with Iran's permission."