Christian evangelist Franklin Graham told a victim of domestic violence that she ought to return to her husband and downplayed her allegations of abuse, according to a jaw-dropping story in the Washington Post.
The story revolves around Naghmeh Panahi, the wife of Saeed Abedini, a Christian pastor who was imprisoned in Iran in 2012 in a textbook case of religious discrimination. Graham was among the many conservative Christians calling for Abedini’s release—and they had the support of the Obama administration and elected officials as well. In early 2016, Abedini was finally released.
But the story around Panahi received far less attention. In 2015, after years of advocating for her husband’s released from Iran, she began telling a very different story: Abedini had abused her. In fact, the Washington Post‘s Sarah Pulliam Bailey put it this way just after Abedini was released:
In November, Naghmeh Abedini began to back away from her high-profile role in the campaign, telling supporters by email that her husband had been abusive to her and she can “no longer live a lie.” Christianity Today published two emails Naghmeh Abedini sent to supporters about her troubled marriage, which began in 2004.
She confirmed that she had experienced “physical, emotional, psychological, and sexual abuse through her husband’s addiction to pornography.” She wrote at the time, “The abuse started early in their marriage and has worsened during Saeed’s imprisonment,” which she confirmed on Saturday. The two had been speaking by phone and through Skype, but she said she has not spoken with him since October.
She said the timing of those emails, which were leaked to media, was unfortunate.
“When he gets home, we can address the serious issues that have happened and continued,” she said.
In essence, she said her husband had abused her, but also, he didn’t deserve to be locked up in an Iranian prison. Once he was free, they could deal with their other issues. And now he was freed.
That’s the backdrop for this latest revelation published by Bailey yesterday.
It turns out Franklin Graham, who possessed one of the largest megaphones in the world of evangelical Christianity with about 10 million followers on Facebook, has been working with the family ever since Abedini’s imprisonment. He grew close to both Abedini and Panahi. But while Graham was extremely vocal about the religious discrimination at play when he called for Abedini’s release, he was silent on matters involving the abuse Panahi suffered. In fact, he made everything worse.
For example, when the claims of abuse first became public in 2015, Graham’s first reaction was… to accuse Panahi of adultery.
“Naghmeh, are you cheating on him?” he asked. Panahi replied strongly that she was not.
Graham, son of the evangelical titan Billy Graham, confirmed in a phone interview with The Post that he asked the question, saying he suspected an affair because Panahi had been advocating so fervently for her husband’s release only to “go cold on him.”
“It was a good question to ask,” Graham said, “and I would have asked it again.”
Graham told her to stop talking about the abuse, presumably so it wouldn’t hurt the Christian Right’s latest cause célèbre and get in the way of Graham using his involvement in the case to boost his own image, and urged her to “reunite” with him.
The abuse described by Panahi involves “kicking and shoving,” beating her “severely,” and grabbing her “by the neck” during pregnancy. (Abedini either denied the allegations, said they were committed in self-defense, or accused his wife of lying in order to promote her own ministry.)
Why didn’t she go public about the abuse as it was happening? As many victims could tell you, there’s a host of reasons people stay silent. Maybe they have too much riding on the marriage. Maybe they don’t know how serious the problem is when they’re right in the thick of it. In the case of Panahi, her faith was also a barrier to going public because she was taught to “submit” to her husband.
Graham, however, told Panahi that even if the abuse occurred, she was better off saying nothing in public about it.
“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 actually tried to force unification on the couple by flying Abedini on a private plane to Idaho, where Panahi lived. She served him with an order of protection so he couldn’t get near her. But when that order expired, and he saw his children, the abuse continued.
That May after a restraining order had expired, Panahi said, during a visit with the children, Abedini grabbed their 8-year-old son by the neck when the boy didn’t clean up a water spill; Panahi took her son to a hospital, where he was put in a neck brace. A district court judge in Boise granted an emergency protection order and ordered a child-protection investigation, according to a transcript of the couple’s divorce proceedings…
All of this is to say: Panahi accused her husband of abuse. There was ample evidence of the abuse. And yet Franklin Graham decided it would be best for them to stay together despite no substantive effort by Abedini to get counseling or address his violent temper.
This may be the most damning exchange (recorded by Panahi):
According to the recording, Graham said the marriage could “be fixed easily,” and he seemed to dismiss the severity of her abuse. “I’m not here to defend him calling you bad names, yelling at you, whatever,” he said.
“Beating me,” Panahi interjected.
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.”
And that was not her situation, Graham told her, because he felt an abusive husband was someone who “stomped” on his wife every night.
“I was beaten,” she replied.
Graham again urged her to speak with Abedini, complaining that they hadn’t met for lunch or dinner. But he dismissed the idea of abuse counselors. “You could get some godless psychiatrist,” he said.
Graham tried to gaslight Panahi by saying she didn’t really suffer any abuse because it didn’t fit his clear-cut faith-based definition of abuse as being something that only exists in one extreme kind of way. It’s the same kind of dismissal we’ve seen from a number of conservative religious leaders who have downplayed sexual abuse for decades by pretending there’s only one kind of act that qualifies. Anything that doesn’t boil down to a physical sexual assault by a stranger in a dark alley isn’t really that bad, is it?
It’s also deeply telling that Graham immediately tossed out the possibility of the couple seeing an abuse counselor because no amount of qualified expertise would outweigh the possibility that the person might not share his bigoted Christian faith.
Thankfully, Panahi stopped listening to Graham. The couple divorced in October of 2016, she was eventually given full custody of their kids, and he’s now living somewhere in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, Graham is still spouting his brand of evangelical bigotry to an ever-growing audience.
The takeaway here isn’t that Graham is secretly heartless. We knew that a long time ago. It’s that his cruelty extends even to people who share his faith and many of his beliefs. Plenty of right-wing evangelicals will support Graham’s anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, his rejection of vaccine mandates, and his calls for defunding any organization that acknowledges the existence of same-sex couples. But even some of them might be appalled by the way he dismisses physical abuse against women.
It’s not like this is new, though. When Brett Kavanaugh was accused of sexual assault during his confirmation hearings, Graham summarized the attack by saying, “she said no and he respected that.” (No he didn’t.) Even then, he was willing to take the side of an alleged abuser over the words of an alleged victim because he cared more about gaining political power than expressing sincere empathy.
In the case of Panahi, though, the evidence is overwhelming. There are court records, orders of protection, accounts of the abuse, and more. And still, he told Panahi to suck it up and deal with it. Abedini was good for business, it seems, and Graham was more than willing to throw his wife under the bus so he could benefit from Abedini’s celebrity.