Sunday started as a cold and icy morning. As the fog began lifting in Boise, Sunday morning radio programing was interrupted as President Obama stepped up to the podium at the White House.
“Pastor Saeed Abedini is coming home," Obama said. "Held for three-and-a-half years, his unyielding faith has inspired people around the world in the global fight to uphold freedom of religion. Now Pastor Abedini will return to his church and community in Idaho.”
At the same time Obama was addressing the country on the release of five Americans freed from Iran through a prisoner swap, church-goers at Calvary Chapel were arriving for morning services in Boise. There was buzz in the lobby of the non-denominational church as people mingled and drank coffee.
Jenny Silverthorne handed out programs as people began to find their seats for the first of two morning services.
“We have been keeping Saeed and Naghmeh in our prayers as a church for a long time and that’s amazing," said Silverthorne. "I mean, those things it looks like there’s never going to be a resolution and it seems so hopeless so it’s really amazing how God worked that out.”
Christian pastor Saeed Abedini was a member of Calvary before he was arrested in his native Iran in 2012, and his wife Naghmeh and two children still attend the church. Abedini spent three-and-a-half years behind bars, serving an eight-year sentence for evangelizing in the conservative Islamic country. He had converted to Christianity years earlier, and eventually moved to Idaho and became an American citizen.
Although she doesn’t know the Abedinis personally, Silverthorne says their story resonates with her.
“It’s been very moving for me to hear about this story and so cool to see it being resolved like this.”
A few hundred people filed in as the service began. Senior Pastor Bob Caldwell made a special announcement at the start.
“So you've probably already heard," said Caldwell as cheers began, "Saeed is coming home."
Members of Calvary Chapel have followed Abedini’s story closely. Since his arrest in 2012, they’ve hosted vigils on the steps of Idaho’s capitol and have held prayer services for him. They’ve raised money to support his wife, Naghmeh, and their two young children while he’s been in prison. During President Obama’s visit to Boise last January, supporters from the church stood in the cold holding signs and wearing brightly colored shirts that read “Free Saeed.” To them, his story is their story.
“Our prayers have been answered and our dear brother Pastor Saeed is coming home," said Lee Romero after the Sunday service ended. She wore her “Free Saeed” shirt to celebrate the news, and said it’s a relief to hear Abedini will reunite with his children soon.
“I work over with the children’s ministry here at Calvary Boise, and the children have been missing their father greatly.”
Pastor Bob Caldwell tried to describe what it feels like to know his friend is coming home.
"It’s beyond description really," said Calwell. "I’ve known him pretty well and have been with him in Iran when he was doing stuff there, starting churches. So I love him a lot and to have him come back is just amazing.”
Caldwell said he’s proud of Naghmeh Abedini’s efforts to free her husband. During Abedini's husband’s captivity she testified at the United Nations and before Congress. She also met with President Obama last year.
But Saeed Abedini’s return to home and family life will have some challenges. Namely, Naghmeh recently revealed abuse in the marriage. In a message to supporters that was leaked to the press in November, she said she had experienced “physical, emotional, psychological and sexual abuse (through Saeed’s addiction to pornography).”
Caldwell said this public revelation – which Naghmeh says she regrets and blames on emotional distress – was a shock to some people in his church who supported Saeed through the years.
“It’s hard for a lot of people because you can turn a person into a hero you know, like a superhero," said Caldwell. "And that’s kind of dangerous because people don’t want their heroes to be normal.”
Caldwell is confident the family will be able to work through these issues. Parishioner Lee Romero says members of the church are ready to help the Abedinis.
“The family’s going to need our love, we just need to surround them with that."
Find Frankie Barnhill on Twitter @FABarnhill
Copyright 2016 Boise State Public Radio