Naghmeh Panahi shared a harrowing story of domestic abuse with Franklin Graham. Then, he betrayed her utterly by siding with her abuser.
A few days ago, Washington Post broke a huge story about evangelical leader Franklin Graham. Some years back, he strongly urged Naghmeh Panahi, the wife of a Christian pastor, to stay with her abusive husband. She refused, so Graham got angry with her for disobeying him. His responses to accusations of poor leadership and advice all ring with defensiveness and self-justifications galore. Intertwined with this story, Graham brought Panahi’s abuser with him to a ministry that works with troubled military couples.
Evangelical leaders told me the same things that Graham told Panahi.
But it gets worse. Much worse. An evangelical chaplain in the military told me the same thing as well. Franklin Graham’s behavior is not some aberration, and neither was his bizarre decision to bring Panahi’s abuser to a military ministry shindig. It’s par for the course in evangelical ministry.
Related: Franklin Graham compares support for impeachment to Jews betraying Jesus.
Background: Why Franklin Graham even got involved in Naghmeh Panahi’s life in the first place
Naghmeh Panahi and her then-husband, Saeed Abedini, are naturalized American citizens. They’re both evangelicals as well. The two both had close family ties in Iran, but called Boise, Idaho their home. They married in 2004, and before a whole year was out he’d already begun abusing her physically and verbally.
In 2012, Abedini returned to Iran to work in an orphanage. While there, he was arrested for allegedly leading illegal house churches. The Iranian government felt that these house churches threatened national security, so they sentenced him to eight years in prison.
Back in 2012, evangelicals were getting very, very excited about religious persecution. Abedini’s charges, if true, meant that he’d been arrested while conducting religious observances. And that meant he was totally being unfairly persecuted for jus’ bein’ Christian. So it shouldn’t be surprising that a big name soon entered his life.
Back in the States, Panahi campaigned for her husband’s freedom. In 2013, she reached out to Franklin Graham to ask for his help. She hoped this extremely influential evangelical leader could make progress that she, as a normal everyday person, could not.
As it turns it, he could. Along the way, he showered Panahi and her children with gifts: visits, expensive restaurant dinners, trips, speaking engagements at his church, and more. The two emailed frequently.
In mid-January 2016, Iran freed Abedini. But very quickly, he revealed that he was still abusive.
Panahi decided to break away from him. She also decided to speak out publicly about his abuse.
The extra dollop of horror on the already terrifying ordeal Naghmeh Panahi faced
In 2015, Graham heard that Panahi had been speaking publicly about the abuse she’d suffered at her husband’s hands. He called her to discuss the matter. However, his goal was not comforting her or offering her help to escape her terrifying situation.
Instead of helping her at all, he first demanded to know if her emotions toward her then-husband had gone “cold,” as he put it, because she was having some kind of extramarital affair. Yes. He asked a victim of domestic violence if she was cheating on her husband. When she insisted she wasn’t cheating, it sounds like Graham didn’t believe her.
(Later, he drilled down on his offensive, demeaning question, saying “it was a good question to ask.” Only in Patriarchy-Land!)
Shockingly, he advised Panahi to reconcile with her abusive husband.
After that conversation, Panahi says, Graham continued to push her hard to “stop talking about the abuse and reunite with Abedini.”
But Graham would soon do something far worse than give her awful marriage advice.
Franklin Graham tried to force Naghmeh Panahi to reconcile with her husband
In 2020, Graham tried to convince Panahi to reunite with Abedini at his special retreat center. Panahi agreed at first. It sounds like she was at least a little interested in fixing the marriage if Abedini made real changes to himself. But then, Graham’s own sister, Anne Graham Lotz, warned Panahi not to get back together with Abedini. She feared for Panahi’s safety and that of her children.
A week later, Graham flew Abedini out to Boise to reclaim his errant
property wife. The day he was due to show up at her door, a reporter called Panahi to ask how she felt about that. That’s when she found out he was coming. And well, she sure didn’t like it! Right away, she obtained an emergency protection order against him.
When Graham finally figured out that Panahi wasn’t going to follow his orders, he retaliated as only a spurned authoritarian can. He accused her of being “a dishonest woman” and “disappointing.”
At the same time, Graham worked closely with Abedini to help him get re-established again in America. Ain’t that nice of him!
An evangelical military ministry has entered the chat
After the issuing of the protection order, Franklin Graham flew Abedini out to Alaska. Abedini was joining Graham to do some military ministry thing with him. This ministry thing, “Operation Heal Our Patriots,” focuses on military families as a whole.
Operation Heal Our Patriots seeks to help troubled military couples resolve their problems and stay together. According to their information page, this is part of an umbrella charity called Samaritan’s Purse. Franklin Graham is the president of the charity.
Here’s how Operation Heal Our Patriots describes their work:
Couples come to Alaska looking for a way to fix what’s broken—broken relationships and marriages on the brink. Often they feel far from God.
But as they step away from daily life and distractions, many couples find hope awakening again as they go through six days of chaplain-led, Biblically based marriage enrichment training.Samaritan’s Purse, Operation Heal Our Patriots
So yes, Franklin Graham brought an actual, honest-to-goodness violent domestic abuser under a protection order to a ministry seeking to heal marriages through Jesus Power.
By the way, did you catch that “chaplain-led” bit up there?
A very valid and pressing concern
Military wives had heard about Panahi’s situation already. In response, they had shared their own stories of domestic abuse with her. And Panahi worried that Graham’s ministry would treat military abuse victims the same way he’d treated her.
After all, Graham clearly felt very friendly toward this abuser, while giving his victim absolutely disastrous advice.
How far did the United States military sympathize with this pastor and his charity? How far did military leaders’ sympathies run toward abusive military men?
Officially, the military has a zero-tolerance policy regarding domestic abuse. Unofficially? The reality varies quite a lot from the ideal, especially when a military leader likes evangelicals’ obscenely unfair relationship model, complementarianism. (The term basically means men and women are separate but equal. In actual practice, it means Jesus-flavored systemic sexism).
I think Panahi was right to be concerned about what Franklin Graham’s ministry was telling military wives in abusive relationships, especially if those chaplains were military.
Some years back, after my first husband Biff joined the military, I myself faced the terrifying specter of domestic violence. And an evangelical military chaplain did, in fact, give me the exact same advice that Graham gave Panahi.
The worst day of the worst week ever
At the end of my marriage to Biff (a pseudonym, and yes, it’s a reference to Back to the Future), he began to terrify me with threats of physical violence. These were lurid. Like, unthinkably violent. For months beforehand, he’d been trying to force me to attend church again and obey his commands. What happened instead was me refusing, and then us getting into worse and more heated fights.
However, threats of violence represented a serious new escalation.
I refused to hang around long enough to find out how he might escalate next. Shortly after that escalation, during the worst argument yet, he literally got hauled away by military police officers, then involuntarily hospitalized for a week.
During that week, I planned an escape to another country.
One day, I had to visit the hospital to get my checkbook from him. (We only had one. Typically, I handled it, but I’d let him take it with him in case he needed to buy stuff at the hospital. Neither of us had anticipated he’d be there for a week). I made sure the meeting occurred in public near the hospital entrance desk—and security. And I was pleasant and cheerful, giving no hint of my intentions.
Biff sets up a meeting
Biff worked on base as a chaplain’s assistant. In that capacity, he served what he claimed was the head chaplain of the entire sprawling base. And when this chaplain found out I was going to be on base that day, he’d asked to see me.
I didn’t want to see him. I knew that evangelical pastors don’t always care about keeping secrets. Oh, but Biff promised me that this one was completely bound about by confidentiality rules. If he revealed anything I told him to anyone, Biff said, I “could sue him [the chaplain] for a million dollars.”
Alas for him, Biff was a very poor liar.
But I thought that at least I could make his boss aware of his threats and ask for his help in controlling Biff.
Oh, what a sweet summer child I was.
What actually happened to me was exactly what happened years later to Naghmeh Panahi.
Naghmeh Panahi feared for the wives involved with Operation Save Our Patriots
This is the line in the Washington Post story that hit me like a load of bricks. Regarding that charity Graham operates, Operation Save Our Patriots, Panahi had something to say:
Panahi, who heard from military wives after she shared her own story, expressed concern that he would similarly tell those wives to go back to abusive husbands.Washington Post
It seems like a valid fear. Given what I went through, and given how Graham mistreated Panahi for years and sided with and even helped her abuser, it seems more than likely that yes, he absolutely would tell abuse victims to stay with their abusers.
I’m really not sure just how entangled the military is with this charity. They’re listed in a military-written guide to faith-based veterans’ services (on page 5). That said, I don’t know if the military gives them money, facilities, staff, or anything else. Their affiliation may be very superficial. The chaplains might not be military, or they might be doing this in their spare time.
Even so, I hope that they care about Graham mistreating an abuse victim, then bringing her violent abuser around military couples served by his charity.
Two peas in a pod
It really is scary to read about Panahi’s interactions with Graham. He belittled her experiences, tried to gaslight her into accepting a quirky definition of domestic abuse that absolved Abedini entirely, and dismissed the very idea of Abedini getting real help in changing his abusive ways.
That is more or less exactly what I faced as well from Biff’s boss.
We didn’t talk long. Nor did we need to talk for long for me to figure out that he wasn’t going to help me at all. I was very guarded and felt no obligation to be truthful or forthcoming. I most especially didn’t share my escape plans.
As for the chaplain, his sympathies rested entirely with poor widdle Biff, who’d sobbed at him for hours over the previous week in the hospital about his wife who was totally mean to him for no good reason. (Eventually, though, Biff upgraded me to demonic possession!)
The chaplain clearly thought I was some kind of monster for not collapsing in guilt-stricken sympathy over Biff’s tears. It blew his mind that Biff’s performance didn’t change anything.
Franklin Graham betrayed Naghmeh Panahi and her trust, just as a military chaplain betrayed mine
As I got up to leave, the chaplain gazed earnestly at me. He asked, Was I absolutely certain that the marriage was dead? Was there no chance at all for reconciliation?
I was flabbergasted!
All I could reply: Weren’t you listening? Biff threatened to hurt me!
I got the distinct impression that in the chaplain’s opinion, this was nowhere close to a valid reason for breaking up.
Worst of all, yes, this chaplain told Biff everything I had said in our meeting. #wheresmymillionbucks?
Even though I suspected the chaplain wouldn’t be trustworthy or treat me right, I felt this tremendous and engulfing wave of hopelessness and loneliness when I realized the full extent of his betrayal. Still freshly deconverted, I had nursed this little bitty hope that Christian leaders wanted to do the right thing, that they cared about the abused and downtrodden.
The reality of the situation devastated me.
I’m sure it devastated Panahi as well. And I’m sure it continues to devastate evangelical women in and out of the military today.
Why evangelical men keep giving this terrible advice
Simply put, the engine of male evangelical leadership revolves around protecting men at the expense of women. Evangelical men must have women’s complete subjugation to soothe their own insecurities and deficiencies. They face a serious inability to self-regulate themselves and manage their own emotions. After all, they can just dump all that on the women they marry! As a result, abuse becomes more frequent and likely. In turn, that abuse gets covered up and ignored.
Evangelicals conceal abuse in their ranks for several reasons. The primary reason concerns protecting their tribe’s public image. Indeed, that appeared to be Franklin Graham’s main motivation in this case. If Abedini became known as a wife-beater, that could reflect very poorly on Graham himself. As he reminded Panahi at one point, he’d given her a considerable sum of money and a lot of his time. He felt that her estrangement from Abedini and her accusations of domestic abuse were a slap in his own face.
Other fears involve losses of personal reputation, credibility, and community standing (which evangelicals call their witness in Christianese). Gosh, we can’t have abuse claims destroying evangelicals’ dreams of power!
Also, evangelicals make a lot of claims about how amazingly Jesus-y their community is and how well their marriage rules work compared to anything found in heathenry. When stories of abuse get out into the public, they destroy all of those claims.
As they should.
Naghmeh Panahi still speaks out against abuse
Panahi’s story ends pretty well. She filed for divorce not long after that fateful last meeting. Her now-ex-husband got in legal trouble for violating no-contact and protection orders in 2017 and 2018, but now he’s living in the Middle East again. I bet she feels much better knowing he’s far away.
I know that feeling. Every single mile of distance feels like a bit more safety.
The Washington Post article says Panahi still hears from missionary, military, and pastors’ wives. They tell her of the abuse they’re suffering and have suffered at the hands of their husbands. Her advice has changed, though. She counsels them to get to safety, to take notes, to gather evidence. More specifically, she tells them not to “go through the church,” meaning not to bother getting pastors and church leaders involved. Instead, they need to get law enforcement involved.
I definitely agree. Franklin Graham not only didn’t help her, he appears to have made her situation much worse in every conceivable way. This oh-so-very-concerned evangelical leader treated her like a criminal, like she was in the wrong here. He gave her abuser significant help, even sending him in a jet to reclaim her without her consent.
At least, she knows now not to trust evangelical leaders in these cases. Just as I learned, and just as countless other women have learned.
Power protects its own, in these broken systems. The powerless do not get protected. Instead, they get exploited by the powerful. In such a system, no low is ever too low.