Four years ago, while sitting in solitary confinement in Iran, Saeed Abedini had a vision.
“I saw a young man with blue eyes, blond hair. I was sitting with him in a room,” Abedini, an evangelical Christian pastor, told The Huffington Post. “Someone told me, ‘He’s going to be the next president of the United States and you’re going to be friends with him.”
By 2015, there were nineteen candidates vying to be president. Abedini, still in prison in Iran, looked through the potential presidents from a smuggled mobile phone he claims he bought in prison. (HuffPost was unable to independently verify this claim.) He was disappointed to see that all of the candidates were old and didn’t look like the young man from his vision. Maybe in ten or twenty years, he thought.
But one night, while scrolling through Facebook posts, he came across a picture of a young man with blond hair and blue eyes. His whole body started shaking. “Ohmygosh, this is the one that I saw in the dream!” he said. The pastor didn’t immediately know who the man was, but once he clicked on the picture, he realized it was a young Donald Trump.
“I believe that this was a vision from God,” Abedini said in an interview with HuffPost. The reason God showed him a young image of Trump, Abedini explained, is because that was the age Trump was when God decided he would be president. “Because you are not Christian, maybe this does not make sense for you,” the pastor acknowledged. “You need to just read the Bible.”
“Preaching and prison has always been kind of a lifestyle for me. It’s not something that scares me ... Jesus had the same lifestyle.” Saeed Abedini
Abedini was arrested in Iran 2012 and sentenced to eight years imprisonment on charges of evangelizing. Christian conservatives championed him as a symbol of religious freedom. His backers in the U.S., including Trump, advocated for his release and pushed the Obama administration to tie nuclear diplomacy to his freedom. In January, Iran released Abedini and three other Americans in exchange for seven Iranians who were detained in the U.S. But Abedini ― who has described being tortured in prison ― says he didn’t want to be released as part of a prisoner swap and would have preferred to serve the rest of his time.
“Preaching and prison has always been kind of a lifestyle for me. It’s not something that scares me,” Abedini said. “Jesus had the same lifestyle.”
Even now, Abedini is prepared to go back to Iran, even though it would likely result in his imprisonment. “I know one day, God will call me back to Iran again,” he said.
Now back in Idaho, where he relocated in 2005, he’s an enthusiastic Trump supporter.
“I voted early today! I voted for Donald Trump,” Abedini announced to his 20,000 Facebook followers on Oct. 21. “Last year on the same day I was sick in chains for Christ, and now I can choose my next President.”
Trump spoke out in support of Abedini as early as 2013, when he accused the Obama administration of abandoning the pastor by striking an interim nuclear agreement with Tehran without securing Abedini’s release. Trump hosted Naghmeh Abedini, Saeed’s wife at the time, at Trump Tower in New York. According to Saeed, Trump gave her a check for $10,000. The Trump campaign did not respond to requests for comment and Naghmeh would not confirm whether she received the money.
After Saeed Abedini was imprisoned, Naghmeh worked relentlessly to bring him home. But two months before the prisoner swap, she withdrew suddenly from public advocacy. Saeed had committed “physical, emotional, psychological, and sexual abuse” before he was arrested, she told a group of supporters in emails that were leaked to Christianity Today. The verbal abuse “escalated” when they spoke by phone while he was in prison, she told HuffPost. They are now in the process of divorcing.
Saeed denies Naghmeh’s allegations, but says they are part of the reason he held off publicly endorsing Trump until last month. “There is a huge number of women ― they don’t like me because my wife called me [an] abuser,” he explained. “I don’t want [Trump] to lose the voice of women because he has the same situation like me with the women.”
Abedini was born in Tehran and grew up Muslim. He could see Evin prison, where he would later be detained, from his childhood bedroom window, he said. As a teenager, he thought about joining Hezbollah and fighting Jews in Israel. When he was 20, he met a Christian pastor in Iran who told him that Jesus is Lord. The comment infuriated Abedini and he plotted to stab the pastor.
But when he tried to sleep that night, he says he was repeatedly awakened by a voice. “Saeed, I’m coming back soon. Go preach my gospel,” he heard. At first, he thought he was having schizophrenic delusions. But each time, the voice grew louder. The third time, the voice was booming and he saw a light illuminate his room. His brother, also in the room, slept through the whole thing. Abedini decided he had come face-to-face with Jesus and converted to Christianity. Instead of killing the pastor, he went to work with him.
Abedini fled Iran in 2005 because of persecution of Christians, but he made frequent trips back home to evangelize, and later started an orphanage. The 2012 incident that led to his lengthy imprisonment was the 12th time he was arrested in Iran, he said.
Trump wasn’t the first choice for evangelical Christians, many of whom were uncomfortable with the candidate’s xenophobic platform. Banning Muslims from entering the country and building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border isn’t exactly in line with Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as yourself,” a group of evangelical leaders pointed out in an open letter. But after Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) ― a popular candidate among Christian conservatives ― dropped out, evangelicals overwhelmingly backed Trump over Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. (Abedini has met Cruz and likes him, but never considered voting for him. “When I prayed,” he said, “God told me, ‘Ted Cruz is not the one who is going to be president.’”)
I know modern life and cultural changes would love to see a woman in the White House but it’s not biblical. Saeed Abedini
To Abedini, Trump isn’t a default choice, he’s the candidate ordained by God. Unlike the evangelicals who struggle to reconcile Trump’s bigotry with their religious values, Abedini enthusiastically backs Trump’s most controversial policy proposals.
The wall along the Mexican border? “That’s great!” Abedini said. “I came legally, I waited for three years.”
The Muslim ban? He thinks that’s “great” too. He feels bad for Syrian refugees, he says, but he thinks it’s not worth the risk of letting in an ISIS fighter posing as a refugee. And if the U.S. lets in too many Muslims, he says, it’s inevitable that more of them will gravitate toward violent extremism. “I was a Muslim, I know,” he said. “It’s in their heart. When they have power, they do it.”
The fact that Trump is running against a woman made Abedini’s decision even easier. “I know modern life and cultural changes would love to see a woman in the White House but it’s not biblical,” Abedini said in a lengthy Facebook post on Oct. 15.
“If you want America to be America again,” the pastor explained to HuffPost, “We just need to stand on Christian values. We need to just announce, ‘This is a Christian country.’”
Abedini isn’t bothered by the fact that Trump has mocked and threatened women who accuse him of sexual assault, a reporter with a disability, immigrants, refugees, and pretty much anyone who disagrees with him.
“Like you and me, he is a flawed man, in the process of spiritual growth,” Abedini posted on Facebook. “But what I see is God is using him and anointed him.”
Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.