Pastor freed by Iran to reunite with wife at North Carolina retreat

By Emily Stephenson
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Naghmeh Abedini is pictured in the home of her parents in West Boise, Idaho

Naghmeh Abedini, the wife of naturalized U.S. citizen Saeed Abedini who was detained in Iran in 2012, is pictured in the home of her parents in West Boise, Idaho, January 20, 2016. REUTERS/Ben Klayman

By Emily Stephenson

ASHVILLE, N.C. (Reuters) - Saeed Abedini, an American pastor freed this month from an Iranian prison as part of a U.S.-Iranian prisoner swap, will be reunited with his wife and children on Monday at a Christian center in the North Carolina mountains.

The Billy Graham Training Center at the Cove, founded by the famed evangelical minister and his family, said Abedini wanted time to adjust and reconnect with his family after more than three years of imprisonment in Iran.

Abedini's wife, Naghmeh, also told Reuters last week the couple would work on their marriage. She said in a message to supporters that became public that her husband had been abusive and suffered from a pornography addiction.

Abedini arrived at the Asheville, North Carolina, center on Thursday. He and his avid supporter Franklin Graham, Billy Graham's son, have so far declined comment.

A spokesman also declined to say what resources would be made available at the center, known as a retreat to hear speakers, hike and pray.

"I'm sure they're praying ... trying to find out where he is spiritually right now," said Joe Nesbitt, an Asheville-based Christian counselor with Grace Life International, who has spent time at the Cove.

Abedini, 35, a naturalized U.S. citizen, was sentenced by an Iranian court in 2013 to eight years in prison for allegedly compromising Iran's national security by setting up home-based Christian churches there.

He was arrested after returning to Iran for what was supposed to be a short trip to set up an orphanage.

Abedini was one of five Americans released by Iran in exchange for clemency to seven Iranians who were convicted or facing trial in the United States. The swap was announced at the same time as international sanctions on Iran were lifted in a deal with the United States and other major powers to curb Tehran's nuclear program.

Abedini became a rallying point for U.S. evangelicals, who saw him as a symbol of persecution of Christians. Franklin Graham and other pastors around the country called for his release.

Republican White House hopefuls spoke about him, including U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who prayed for Abedini outside the White House.

Naghmeh Abedini, who had publicly campaigned for her husband's release, told Reuters last week their relationship was strained.

In the fall of 2015, she emailed supporters that she was pulling back from public advocacy and described "physical, emotional, psychological and sexual" abuse by her husband, who she said was addicted to pornography. Reuters could not independently confirm the allegations.

(Additional reporting by Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, N.C. and Ben Klayman in Boise, Idaho; Editing by Frances Kerry)