Rev. Franklin Graham took up the cause of Naghmeh Panahi after her Christian-pastor husband was imprisoned in Iran. But their relationship became strained after Graham accused her of cheating on her husband during his imprisonment, according to a new report from The Washington Post.
Speaking to The Washington Post in 2020, Graham said he asked about Panahi's alleged cheating because she had advocated so strongly for her husband's release, only to later "go cold on him."
But according to Panahi, her then-imprisoned husband, Saeed Abedini, had abused her physically and emotionally for most of their 13-year marriage. After Graham asked her if she was cheating, Panahi says the evangelical pastor and activist kept pushing her to stop talking about the abuse and reunite with Abedini, whom a family court judge called “a habitual perpetrator of domestic violence.”
"In May, at a conference on abuse in churches, Panahi shared her story about how Graham had treated her. Two days later, the Southern Baptist Convention released the results of a third-party investigation into a years-long coverup of sexual abuse," The Post reports. "The shocking report reignited outrage over the mishandling of abuse claims by evangelical leaders that included the 2018 backlash to Southern Baptist leader Paige Patterson’s attempt to persuade an abused woman to go back to her husband, fueling a #ChurchToo movement."
Panahi said she advocated for her husband’s release despite the alleged abuse because of her commitment to religious freedom. She also says her beliefs at the time blinded her to the abuse within her marriage. “I would pray, ‘God, do you want me to submit [to my husband] more?’” Panahi said. “Jesus rescued me and showed me that’s not what he wants.”
As Graham worked for her husband's release, Panahi said she privately hope that he would repent for the abuse. Instead, he continued to verbally abuse her from prison after he gained access to a smuggled cellphone, and by 2015, the two stopped communicating.
When Abedini was released in 2013, he was given a hero’s welcome, meeting with Republican leaders Panahi had worked with, including Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz, who Panahi said never mentioned her abuse allegations.
Emails from Graham, meanwhile, show the allegations didn't change his opinion that Abedini was “a hero” who “suffered greatly for his faith.”
“I’m not saying that Saeed is not guilty of abuse,” Graham wrote to Panahi on Jan. 23, 2016, the week after Abedini’s release. “I am sure he is guilty of much more. The problem is you exposed him publicly to the whole world and embarrassed him. You did this while he was still in prison, a place where he could not defend himself or to speak about these issues.”
Graham also insisted that the pair reunite, to which Panahi agreed until she spoke with Graham's sister, Anne Graham Lotz, who said in 2020 she believed Panahi that she was being abused.
“I believe it was not a marriage-counseling situation, it’s not like you know ‘he leaves the top off the toothpaste,’” Lotz recounted. “I would not want them back together where he could hurt her or the children.”
After Abedini release, Panahi obtained a protection order against him, But Graham claims he never pressured Panahi and called her “a dishonest woman” and “disappointing.”
Panahi says the abuse continued after the protection order expired when he grabbed their 8-year-old son by the neck, landing him in the hospital. A judge in Boise, Idaho, granted an emergency protection order and ordered a child-protection investigation. Three months later, Panahi met with Graham and her husband "to show she was trying to make the marriage work, even though Abedini had not met with an abuse counselor as she had requested," The Post reported.
Graham told her that abuse is a “gray area,” that an abusive husband was someone who “comes home and he takes a six-pack of beer and he jumps off the chair because the kids are making noise and beats his wife and beats the kids and that’s something that goes on almost every day.”
Despite Panahi reiterating to Graham that she and her children were repeatedly physically beaten by Abedini, Graham pushed her continue trying to reconcile with her husband, and discouraged her from seeking help from "godless" abuse counselors.
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