Iran recently released Christian pastor Saeed Abedini after jailing him for nearly three years. During his imprisonment, he became a cause célèbre among evangelicals for daring to minister the Gospel of Christ in such a harshly Islamic country. His release elicited widespread euphoria among Christians around the world who had been praying for him and his family.
But all was not well in the Abedini household, either before Saeed's imprisonment, or during it. Late last year, Naghmeh informed supporters that her marriage to Saeed had begun to encounter deep problems as early as 2004, merely two years after their wedding. She claimed Saeed abused her physically, emotionally, and psychologically, and that he was addicted to pornography. Hers was a bombshell of an allegation, and it didn't sit well with many evangelicals.
Why was she coming forward with these things now, while her husband languishes behind bars in a country that sponsors terrorism? Doesn't working to free her husband trump these other complaints? Is she trying to divert some of the attention being lavished on her husband to herself?
Then too, many other evangelicals seemed to simply ignore her claims. They were the product of a frustrated wife, and the inevitable result of years of strain as her brave husband suffered incarceration at the unpredictable whim of brutal Islamists.
When Iran freed Saeed this past January 16, along with three other detainees, it was major news both inside and outside of evangelicalism. It was presumed that he would return home, whatever strife that may have existed in his relationship with Naghmeh would somehow be patched up, and they'd live happily ever after as symbols of heroic virtue.
Um, not so fast. This past Tuesday, Naghmeh filed for legal separation. On Wednesday, she took to Facebook to elaborate on the reasons for her actions:
"I do deeply regret that I hid from the public the abuse that I have lived with for most of our marriage and I ask your forgiveness," Naghmeh posted. "I sincerely had hoped that this horrible situation Saeed has had to go through would bring about the spiritual change needed in both of us to bring healing to our marriage. Tragically, the opposite has occurred. Three months ago Saeed told me things he demanded I must do to promote him in the eyes of the public that I simply could not do any longer. He threatened that if I did not the results would be the end of our marriage and the resulting pain this would bring to our children."
The reaction across our vast evangelical industrial complex has been swift, and mixed. Which isn't necessarily a good thing for either of the Abedinis, their family, and our community's overall representation of the Gospel to our watching world.
Some evangelicals want to give Naghmeh the benefit of the doubt. Others appear unwilling to let their predetermined enthusiasm for Saeed be compromised by messy complications. Some automatically appear to give Saeed the benefit of the doubt since, after all, he's a pastor, and he's just been horribly imprisoned by evil Muslims. And then there are others who scornfully turn askance at the saga, writing it off as tawdry exhibitionism by emotionally excitable Persians.
Hey, check out the feedback sections on most any evangelical website to see what self-proclaiming Christ-followers are saying.
In other words, these reactions by us evangelicals tend to mirror what all of us - religious or not - do when we learn of a husband and wife having marital problems. We tend to take sides without knowing all of the facts. Some of us impose on the couple's private relationship our personal suppositions of gender roles and how we think women and men should behave. Many of us rise to protect the most popular, or famous, or celebrated of the two spouses, because after all, we've been lead to believe we know them well, and they aren't that kind of person!
But what do we really know about either Saeed or Naghmeh? For that matter, what do you really know about that couple in your church or Bible study who are facing a deep crisis in their marriage?
We evangelicals say we believe in the sanctity of marriage, but do we really support the people who make up marriages that aren't picture-perfect behind the scenes?
As for the Abedinis, considering the super-saint-status with which many evangelicals have knighted her husband, the pressure appears to be building against Naghmeh and anybody who detracts from his celebrity status. But how helpful is that in terms of their family's successful resolution of whatever conflicts exist?
At this point, it's fair to say that we have a "she said - he said" situation, since we haven't gotten to hear Saeed's side of the story (whether we need to hear it or not)*. Yet all of their notoriety aside, their's is the quagmire that domestic strife presents to the broader Church - whether it's a famous couple or not. It's particularly unfortunate for them that their celebrity only compounds whatever problems exist.
And as for Naghmeh taking to social media and "airing her dirty laundry in public," which some accuse her of doing, consider this: She is filing public legal actions in a court of law. Her husband has become internationally famous, for better or worse, and as a professing Christian, represents a big target for big media. Whether it was through social media or a conventional press conference, if she didn't take the initiative and own up to these legal actions she's filed, don't you suppose it wouldn't be long before our muckraking press forced her to anyway?
Why begrudge her the opportunity to at least try and spin the story as a plea for prayerful support for herself, her husband, and her family? After all, none of them asked for this celebrity. And it's a real stretch to claim that Naghmeh is being an opportunist and bashing her husband for her own selfish reasons:
"I want our reconciliation to be strictly based on God's Word," she told her supporters on Facebook. "I want us to go through counseling, which must first deal with the abuse. Then we can deal with the changes my husband and I must both make moving forward in the process of healing our marriage. In very difficult situations sometimes you have to establish boundaries while you work toward healing. I have taken temporary legal action to make sure our children will stay in Idaho until this situation has been resolved. I love my husband, but as some might understand, there are times when love must stop enabling something that has become a growing cancer. We cannot go on the way it has been. I hope and pray our marriage can be healed. I believe in a God who freed Saeed from the worst prisons can hear our plea and bring spiritual freedom."
May our merciful Lord grant them healing and peace in their marriage, no matter who or what is at fault. And may we pray for them both, and give them the space and grace to be a penitent husband and wife before God, instead of celebrities before us.
*Update: Saeed recently provided an Idaho newspaper his response to his wife's public statements. We've also recently learned that in 2007, Saeed had plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of domestic assault and served one year of probation.