Christmas is a time for celebration and family. It should also be a time for reflection, appreciation for all we have, and remembrance of those who are in need.
While most of us are gathering with loved ones, there are Americans being held prisoner in repressive countries around the world—often for doing nothing more than practicing their faith, aiding the poor, giving voice to the voiceless, or serving their country. Here are some of their heart-wrenching stories:
Saeed Abedini, an American pastor, was arrested in 2012 by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard while visiting his family. He had worked for years to set up churches in Iran. He is serving an eight-year prison sentence on charges related to practicing his Christian faith.
Kenneth Bae was arrested in North Korea in November 2012. Bae was conducting visiting tours of North Korea and working quietly as a missionary to spread Christianity, which is prohibited in North Korea. He was convicted of committing hostile acts against North Korea and sentenced to 15 years hard labor.
Bowe Bergdahl, a Sergeant in the U.S. Army, is a POW in Afghanistan. Sergeant Bergdahl was captured by militants belonging to the Haqqani terrorist network in June 2009. His captors have released several videos of Bergdahl since his capture to demonstrate that he was alive and healthy. The Pentagon believes that he is being held in Pakistan.
James Foley is a U.S. journalist who disappeared in northeast Syria in November 2012. Foley was in Syria to cover the civil war for Agence France-Presse. His family has had no contact with him since his disappearance, but he is believed to a prisoner of the Syrian government.
Alan Gross, a 64-year old U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) contractor, has been imprisoned in Cuba since 2009. Gross was arrested by the Cuban government for fulfilling a USAID contract to distribute communications equipment to the Cuban Jewish community. He was convicted of crimes against the Cuban state and sentenced to 15 years in prison. He recently sent a letter to President Obama pleading for the Administration to take stronger steps to obtain his release.
Amir Hekmati, a former U.S. Marine and decorated war veteran, was arrested, interrogated, and imprisoned in Iran while visiting his grandmother in 2011. He was sentenced to death by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard for allegedly spying for the CIA—a charge overturned by Iran’s Supreme Court and ordered for retrial.
Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent, has been missing since 2007. Levinson is believed to have been kidnapped and detained by the Iranian government. He is currently the longest-held hostage in U.S. history. Recent news reports indicate that Levinson may have been working with the CIA.
Austin Tice, former Captain in the United States Marine Corps and recipient of the 2012 George Polk Award for War Reporting, disappeared in Syria in August 2012. Tice was in Syria as a freelance journalist to report on the civil war. The Czech ambassador to Syria stated that his sources indicate that Tice is alive and in the custody of the Syrian government. Tice’s parents recently traveled to Syria to try and raise awareness about Austin.
At Christmas, it is appropriate for Americans to remember their fellow citizens in distress abroad.
We should also take a moment to appreciate how fortunate we are to live in a country that respects our rights and freedoms. Totalitarian governments around the world torture and imprison thousands of people for opposing the government, practicing their religion, or simply expressing their thoughts and opinions. The U.S. State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2012 details arrest and arbitrary detention of political prisoners, disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and torture in many countries, including Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Zimbabwe.
It is a good time to remember these victims in our prayers, urge our government to try and help them, and support organizations that raise awareness of their plights.