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Wife of American pastor imprisoned in Iran fears for his life

By Laura Zuckerman

SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - The Idaho wife of an Iranian-American Christian pastor imprisoned in Iran said on Monday she felt betrayed and feared for her husband's life after the Obama administration failed to secure his release as a condition of an Iranian nuclear deal.

"My kids are crying every day. They are saying ‘Please keep daddy alive,' and my government let the one, crucial opportunity for bringing my husband home pass by. I feel betrayed," said Naghmeh Abedini, wife of Saeed Abedini, 33, who was incarcerated in his native Iran in September 2012.

The pastor was convicted by an Iranian court in January and sentenced to eight years in prison for undermining national security by working to establish home-based Christian churches in Iran from 2000 to 2005, according to the Washington-based American Center for Law and Justice.

Naghmeh Abedini's comments come after Iran reached an interim deal with major world powers to accept restrictions on its nuclear program in exchange for limited relief from economic sanctions that have gradually crippled its economy and slashed its oil exports.

The U.S. State Department has criticized his conviction and sentencing, saying it was deeply concerned about the fairness and transparency of his trial, and has called for Abedini's release.

Naghmeh Abedini said her husband's health was rapidly deteriorating and that he was without medicine needed for internal injuries he suffered at the outset of his imprisonment. She complained he had also been transferred this month to a prison that houses violent offenders.

"Honestly, I don't know if he will survive it. I seriously fear for his life," she said, adding it has been difficult to meet the eyes of the couple's children - a daughter, 7, and son, 5 - when they ask if their father will be home for Christmas.

ORPHANAGE PROJECT

The Abedinis moved to Boise, Idaho, in 2005 after working to establish home-based churches in Iran, according to the American Center for Law and Justice, which is seeking to secure Abedini's release. Abedini continued to travel to Iran on those missions until 2009, when he was told by Iranian authorities he was restricted to non-religious, humanitarian projects.

Abedini, a naturalized U.S. citizen, had been working to establish a non-sectarian orphanage in Iran when he was detained in 2012.

Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the center, said the family had sought without success to make the pastor's release a priority for the Obama administration in the days leading to the agreement struck Sunday that places curbs on Iran's nuclear program in exchange for easing certain economic sanctions.

"This was the most significant opportunity, while Secretary of State John Kerry was sitting across the table from Saeed's captors, to gain his freedom. It was an historic blunder," he said.

White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said in remarks aired on CNN that U.S. President Barack Obama had raised the issue of detained Americans with his Iranian counterpart, including the pastor's case.

"The Iranians make assertions based on their own legal system. We reject those assertions that these individuals have a legal basis for being detained," Rhodes said. "It shows one thing, which is that we're trying to resolve the nuclear issue, which is of great concern to us, but even as we are doing that, it doesn't lessen our concern about other activities of the Iranian government."

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)

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