PODCAST: Bullied for Leaving an Abusive Marriage with Naghmeh Panahi

by | Oct 26, 2023 | Abuse, Podcasts | 20 comments

Naghmeh Panahi and Franklin Graham Abuse

I first heard of Naghmeh Panahi when she was campaigning to get her husband Saeed, a pastor, released from an Iranian prison.

I saw her on the news, and heard about the prayer vigils, and even took part. Perhaps you did too.

And then I remember vaguely the chaos as he was released, but news hit that he had also been abusive to Naghmeh. And after all her campaigning, she didn’t want to be reunited with him because she didn’t feel safe.

I have since gotten to know Naghmeh online (this interview was the first time we “met” in person!), and I value her voice and her faith so tremendously.

She did what she thought was right–campaigning for him to be released, because it was wrong that the Iranian government had arrested him.

But he was also horribly abusive, and she couldn’t continue in that relationship. But when she broke and finally admitted it, lots of the Christian world turned against her. Franklin Graham bullied her. 

And now we get to hear her story, of how she overcame. 

This was an amazing interview to end Domestic Violence Awareness month, and I hope you enjoy it. Naghmeh is an incredible person.

Or, as always, you can watch on YouTube:

Timeline of the Podcast

1:45 Naghmeh joins and shares her backstory
11:00 Her experience in the Iranian church as a young adult
13:30 Early married life and the beginnings of the abuse
25:00 The process after her husband was arrested
32:00 Abuse inflicted on her while he was in prison
42:00 Franklin Graham’s involvement in the story
55:55 The divorce and life since then
1:01:35 Realization of abuse in church and what Naghmeh is doing now
1:08:15 Sheila’s closing thoughts for today

Naghmeh’s book I Didn’t Survive is riveting.

It reads almost like a thriller, to see how God is moving in the Middle East, and especially in Iran.

To answer questions, like: How can God be moving so dramatically while there is also such evil among some leaders? And how does Jesus see abuse?

I really enjoyed this book, and I think you will too.

Naghmeh Panahi I didn't survive

Near the beginning of the book, Naghmeh explains the title I Didn’t Survive:

I can’t tell you how I was able to make it through because “I” didn’t. I didn’t survive. The old me died in the process, burned in the fires of trials. I am not the same person today than I was before. People who have a hard time getting out of an abusive relationship are often those who attempt to drag their old selves, their old ways of thinking, through it. I couldn’t. I didn’t. Like the phoenix rising from the ashes, a new me arose from the catastrophe of my marriage.

Naghmeh Panahi

I Didn't Survive

I thought that was beautiful. And as she details how she finally got the courage to leave, and what God is also showing her about the North American church now–well, you’ll see faith in a different way.

Plus the convesation she had with Franklin Graham where she stood her ground–it’s important to listen to and read about, because it shows how, if we get into these conversations unprepared and without advocates, we’ll end up being completely bullied and bulldozed. I was so proud of her for standing her ground, even when Franklin refused to let her read Scripture. 

Naghmeh is still on the front lines fighting for women in the Middle East, and seeing the gospel spread around the world. I’m excited to see what God does with her next!

Things Mentioned in the Podcast

Naghmeh Panahi book I didn't survive

What do you think of the dichotomy of how God can be working through such imperfect people like Saeed? Why do you think Franklin Graham couldn’t admit it was abuse? Have you ever been in a situation like Naghmeh’s with Franklin? Let’s talk in the comments!


Sheila: I am so thrilled to bring on the Bare Marriage podcast one of my heroes that I have known about for a decade when she first hit the news.  But I’ve gotten to know her personally in the last few years as we’ve talked online.  But this is our first time talking in person.  So here we have Naghmeh Panahi, the author of the new book I Didn’t Survive.  Hi, Naghmeh.

Naghmeh: Hi.

Sheila: I’m just all happy and excited because you just have such an amazing story.  And I read your memoir in a day.  It was amazing.  Genuinely amazing.  And so I Didn’t Survive launched this month.  You are going to love this episode everybody who is listening.  You need to get her book because it’s not just her story.  It’s the story of what the Holy Spirit is doing around the world and how complicated that can be and how we need to keep our eyes open to the least of these.  And honestly, it’s incredible.  You’re going to love it.  So Naghmeh, I want to jump into it with you.

Naghmeh: Okay.  There’s parts I actually wrote that I was thinking of you.

Sheila: Oh, cool.  

Naghmeh: A lot of the sexual—I listened to some of your podcasts with Preston Sprinkle.  And I’ve actually listened to quite a bit of your podcast.  But just a lot of what you’ve said it’s actually helped make sense of what happened during that time with my having been raised in the purity movement but also my Middle Eastern culture.  So actually a lot of the parts that I describe in my interaction with my—when I first met my husband really you were in the back of my mind.    

Sheila: Oh, that’s so great.  

Naghmeh: Your voice about the purity movement and all that.

Sheila: Oh, that’s so wonderful.  Okay.  To jump into your story, I just want our listeners to know so Naghmeh came to national and even international prominence because she was campaigning for the release of her husband, Saeed Abedini.  How do you say it?

Naghmeh: Abedini.  Yeah.

Sheila: From an Iranian prison.  He was a pastor who was arrested and who was held in prison for three years and then released.  But then upon his release, Naghmeh hit the news again because she said that he had been abusive towards her, and she didn’t want to reconcile.  So she campaigned to get him released, but then they did end up divorcing.  And Naghmeh is now telling her story.  Naghmeh grew up in Iran, moved to the United States, and then went back to Iran and is now back in the United States.  So you’ve been all over the place.  

Naghmeh: Back and forth, back and forth.  Yeah.

Sheila: Yes.  And I want to read how you open your book.  So this is actually the second paragraph to your book, and you said this, “I can’t tell you how I was able to make it through because I didn’t.  I didn’t survive.  The old me died in the process, burned in the fires of trials.  I am not the same person today that I was before.  People who have a hard time getting out of an abusive relationship are often those who attempt to drag their old selves, their old ways of thinking through it.  I couldn’t.  I didn’t.  Like the phoenix rising from the ashes, a new me arose from the catastrophe of my marriage.”  I love it.  So that’s where you’re coming from.  That’s how you set the stage.

Naghmeh: Yeah.  It’s a confusing title, but that’s what it is.  I describe it as a caterpillar kind of going into this cocoon.  Me and the kids actually bought some of those kits where you get the caterpillars in a little box.  And when they actually come out of the cocoon, there’s blood that comes.  It’s such a traumatic event that there’s blood that drips from that cocoon.  And then it turns into a butterfly through that struggle.  So that’s what I would say.  I’m no longer a caterpillar.  In a way, I didn’t survive.  And the Bible says through the renewing of our mind, we’re transformed.  So there’s a transformation taking place when we’re genuine believers and go through trial, and we’re forced to let go of our old ideas and theology about God and ourselves and really become new in God and really who He is.  And a lot of it also—the spiritual abuse.  A lot of our wrong understanding of who God is and what He wants us to be as Christian women had to really be stripped off of me and renewed by what God actually really says in His word.

Sheila: Yeah.  And I love how you brought that out.  Your book reads more like a novel.  Even a suspense novel at times.  It’s really wonderful.  It’s an easy read like you won’t want to put it down.  But it’s so fascinating.  And we can’t go over your whole life, but I’ve picked just a few moments that really meant something to me as we read it that I thought I could ask you to comment on.  So first of all, tell me about you and your twin brother coming to Christ.  That very first time with the radio show.  

Naghmeh: Yeah.  I was raised in war in Iran.  And my dad had told us.  We had that radio where you had to tune in the waves and the old radio.  My dad was looking—we were surrounding our dad.  We were probably seven or eight years old.  And we were looking at our dad as he was trying to find this radio wave where he said his brother was famous in America and was going to be on the radio.  And so he kept looking for the channel, and I guess he figured he hadn’t found the right one.  So he left the room.  And me and my brother kept listening, and it was a Christian station.  And what my dad didn’t know at that time—we were very strong Muslims living in Iran—was that his brother had become a Christian.  And, indeed, he was on a radio, but it was a Christian radio.  But my dad thought he’d gotten the wrong channel because my uncle is very—he was a very high up engineer in the company Lockheed.  And so my dad kind of thought it would be around that topic, I guess.  So he just left the room, but it was a Christian station.  But my uncle wasn’t on it, but there was someone on it that was telling us something that was very strange to me and my twin brother which was that God was love.  And He wanted a relationship with us.  And we couldn’t comprehend that because we kind of grew up in the Islamic Revolution.  And all we were taught at school was that there was a God of wrath, and we had to be careful.  We had an angel on our right and on our left recording our good, our bad.  And we just couldn’t comprehend a God of love, which is actually—if you talk to Muslims, that’s a really radical understanding of God is that He is love and He wants a relationship with us.  So at that point, we just prayed because we speak Farsi.  The Persians speak Farsi.  And in Islam, we were forced to pray in Arabic and read the Koran in Arabic.  But for the first time, me and my brother prayer, and we said, “God, show us.  Who are You?”  And that’s how—we didn’t realize it at that time, but that’s how the journey kind of started of finding Christ or Christ finding us because soon after that my dad said, “We’re going to America.”  And we got so distracted by this whole idea of going to a new land and the Great Satan.  We were taught at school that America was the Great Satan.  So we were very interested to see what this America looked like.  And so we forgot about that prayer until we arrived.  

Sheila: Yeah.  And then you met your uncle, and he—  

Naghmeh: Yeah.  We lived with my uncle.  My parents had made a deal with him that there would be no—my dad found out he was a Christian.  They made a deal that there would be no discussion of God or else my dad would leave, and he would disown him which he ended up doing.  So we didn’t really hear much about God.  My parents kind of kept us—he had a town house, and they lived in the first floor.  And we kind of had a room in the second floor.  And we were kind of isolated from my uncle’s family.  But one day my brother had a vision of Jesus, and he came running to me.  And he was crying.  And, again, my brother is very mathematical.  He got his doctorate of quantum physics at the University of Chicago.  So seeing him cry and tell me he saw Jesus and Jesus is love really started connecting the dots for us.  And we were asking everyone, “Who is Jesus?”  Finally, we found—well, we spoke Farsi.  It was soon after we had come to America.  So not a lot of people understood what we were trying to say.  But my uncle, when my parents were gone, ended up sharing about God with us, and we prayed.  And then there was a swimming pool in the town house, and we got baptized.

Sheila: I love it.  And then I’ll fast forward over the next few years.  Your family moved.  You went through a lot of hardships.  Your mother went through depression.  But eventually, your parents also became Christians.  And so as you’re entering your early 20s, graduated from university, you’re desperately wanting to pursue whatever God has for you.  Very committed to the Lord.  And you end up in Iran again.  And tell me what the church was like.  I found this fascinating how the Holy Spirit was moving in the house church movement and just growing.  Exploding.

Naghmeh: Yeah.  God called me back strangely enough summer of 2001.  There was a few trips back and forth before when I was a teenager.  But the main call that really impacted with the house church movement was soon after—well, summer of 2001 I felt like God was—I was working as a receptionist at my church.  And I felt God.  And I was very involved with the youth group and all that.  And I felt God saying, “You need to go back to Iran.”  And I couldn’t understand it.  Prayed and fasted.  And there was this urge to go back.  So I got a ticket for October of 2001.

Sheila: And we all know what happened in September.

Naghmeh: So my parents were like, “You heard wrong.  Please don’t go.”  And my parents were really brand new Christians.  And I remember my mom saying, “We’re baby Christians.  Don’t do this to us.”  Because if you remember, no one wanted to get on an airplane after September 11.  People were driving everywhere.  Just the fear of that.  And then also there was talks of war in the Middle East.  So here I was on an airplane flying into the Middle East.  I remember changing my flight to a month later just to give it time to pray.  And if I needed to cancel at that time, the airlines were very understanding.  But I felt compelled.  I just felt like God was like, “Nope.  This is the timing to go.”  So I left November of 2001.  But I literally arrived right at the brink of when the revival was happening, and the house church movement was happening.  And I got involved.  I was literally at the forefront of this house church movement, and I was the pastor’s wife.  And it was growing very quickly.  It was one of the most exciting times of my life seeing a move of the Holy Spirit, seeing Muslims.  I had not seen Muslims.  I worked with refugees here in Boise.  I had seen maybe one.  It was rare to see any Muslim become Christian.  And so it was almost like—I don’t know.  I don’t know how to compare it to.  I just never imagined seeing that much.  But with my own eyes just being the pastor’s wife of thousands of Muslims coming to Christ within a few years.  And we planted churches in 33 cities within 2 years.

Sheila: Yeah.  Reading that part of your part, it felt like reading the book of Acts.  Just the things the Holy Spirit was doing.  And yet, at the same time, the Holy Spirit is working and the church is exploding but this man that you were involved with was not demonstrating the fruits of the Spirit in his personal life at all.  So can you tell us about Saeed?  What made you miss the red flags before you got married, do you think?

Naghmeh: I was obsessed with evangelism.  I was obsessed with mission.  And we were a good team, I guess.  Honestly, I didn’t think I could do ministry as a woman.  I felt like I had to be a helper.  And he seemed to be as passionate for evangelism as me.  He was very charismatic.  He was a great evangelist.  At least what appeared to me.  And so I just—the excitement of the ministry really—and honestly, I wouldn’t have seen what I saw as red flag.  For example, he started questioning my relationship with my sister, who I was close with, my parents.  He was saying because he was so spiritual he had a lot of—he was very Pentecostal, charismatic.  So I felt like I didn’t have that.  I grew up in a church where we just read the Bible word by word, and there was not much talk of the Holy Spirit.  And so he did seem more spiritual.  So he would say, “I see issues with your mom, with your dad, with your friends.”  So he started isolating me even though they didn’t even live in Iran.  They would visit.  But I had friends in Iran that he started isolating me from.  Relatives in Iran that he started isolating me from.  But I didn’t see that as abuse.  And then he really put down my looks.  I never thought I was this amazing, beautiful person.  But I never thought I was ugly.  I was just comfortable in my own skin.  And he was just like, “Oh my gosh.  Your nose.  You need to do surgery.  Your eyebrows.  They need to be lifted.  And you’re so fat.”  His whole family, his sisters, were like double zero, and I was a size 4.  They would call me, “Oh my gosh.  You’re so fat.”  And so I just started—and he hated—he’s like, “Your dark hair.  You need to color it.”  Because my name means—Naghmeh (inaudible) Panahi means—Naghmeh protector of Islamic law.  Our family’s heritage, my dad would say, led back to the prophet of Islam, Muhammad.  So he would say, “You’re form Arab blood.  You’re dark.  We’re Aryans.  We’re whiter,” and all of that.  So he really just—it seemed like—I didn’t even know.  In our marriage, I was like, “Why did he even marry me?  He seemed not attracted to my dark features.”  And so I didn’t see that, again, as a red flag.  I did see things that were like ugh.  But, again, the excitement of the ministry, the way the church was growing, it was kind of—made me push my own issues with Saeed—and I would think I was—my dad really paid a lot of attention to me.  More than my other siblings.  He would take me on business trips, and he put a lot of confidence in me like, “You’re like me.  You’re a business woman.”  And so I thought, “You know what?  I’ve been a spoiled brat.  Probably I expected to be treated like I am very this amazing person by my spouse.  Maybe God is breaking me of that pride by not letting me have that marriage where my husband is adoring me like my dad did.”  And so I just didn’t really see it as red flag.  But the times I did sense something I just was like, “It’s okay.  Look at the ministry that’s happening.  It’s fine.”  I would just brush it away.

Sheila: That is one of the interesting things I found in your memoir.  And it came up again and again was how God can be doing these amazing things, and yet, at the same time, He was using people whose character really wasn’t great.  Have you ever been able to reconcile that in your head?  How can that happen?

Naghmeh: Yeah.  Because I think God is testing our idolatrous hearts.  I think we can see—honestly, I’m going to share this.  I didn’t share this in my book.  My uncle, who led me to Christ, ended up not being an amazing man of character either.  And there’s issues with him.  The one person that told me about Christ and baptized me.  So then my husband, stuff with Franklin that I thought is this amazing—who is higher than the Grahams?  It’s like (cross talk), and then it’s the Grahams.

Sheila: Yes.  And we’ll get to Franklin Graham in a minute, everybody.  Yes.

Naghmeh: So I think God allows broken—I would say even evil.  People that might not be saved.  We look at Balaam and Balak, the prophet, and the New Testament calls—is it Balak that was the prophet that the Bible calls him evil actually?  But God used that prophet to prophesy blessing over Israel.  I think God is testing our idolatrous heart.  There is people that are doing great works that in the last days they will tell Jesus, “We did all these great works.”  They call Jesus Lord.  “Lord, we did all this great work.  We did miracles.”  What’s bigger than a miracle?  Dead rising.  Healing.  And Jesus says, “Get away from Me.  I never knew you, you men of lawlessness.”  So we are idolaters in our hearts.  And so when someone does great things, we hang onto them.  And we worship them.  And we throw money at them.  We throw adoration at them.  And they’re not supposed to be getting that.  If they’re true men and women of God, they would say, “No.  Don’t give me that.  I don’t want that.”  Like the apostles did in the New Testament.  But they like to receive it.  They like to receive the monies and the attentions and the glory, and that’s how you can tell that they’re probably false because a true servant of God would not try to be a middle person.  They would be like, “Don’t look at me.  It’s Him.  It’s not about me.  It’s not about my platform.  It’s not about,”—so there’s a lot of middle people, I would say, between us and Christ now.  There’s a lot of people that are gaining a lot of money and attention by just doing great works.  And it’s testing our idolatrous hearts where why are we giving glory to man when it’s God.  God can work through donkeys and evil people.  Do we worship donkeys if they talk?  Maybe we would.

Sheila: Good point.  Good point.  So after you married, very soon, your marriage got abusive although you wouldn’t have named it as such you said.  So you described sexual assault.  You described a horrific beating that he gave you one night in a hotel room.  A few years later he beat your father.  So this was—  

Naghmeh: He beat my dog, destroyed property.  Yeah.  It kept escalating.  Yeah.  The beating happened about a year and a half into our marriage, and that’s probably the first time I thought—to be honest, I probably thought, “This is abuse.”  I wouldn’t have put abuse.  But this is not okay because, again, I wouldn’t have put abuse to it because I guess in my mind I was talking back to him.  He was very tired.  We were both tired.  I was pregnant.  We had just fled Iran.  We were in Dubai.  We were unpacking, and Saeed is very OCD.  Everything has to be organized.  And I was throwing clothes looking for my pajamas, and he said, “You’re making a mess.”  And I said, “Who cares?”  I almost nearly died.  It was that bad.  Again, at that time, I was pregnant.  Early in our engagement, he had crossed sexual boundaries.  I felt like—there was a few times I almost pulled out, but I felt like I’m damaged goods.  For the first time he had me touch his private.  We would take off our clothes.  We would do a lot of things that were not necessarily sex.  But he really pushed a lot of sexual boundaries where I just felt coming from the Middle Eastern culture and also the purity movement I just felt like I belonged to him because he’s already crossed so many lines.  No other man would want me.  In my mind from the purity culture, I was thinking I had never held hands with anyone.  I had never kissed anyone.  Saeed was all of that.  So in my mind, I thought, “Oh, now he’s done that.  I belong to him.  No other man would want me.  I’m tainted.”  So he crossed a lot of sexual boundaries.  And then the beating really started.  I mean there was some physical stuff, which I describe in the book where he would have me beg.  And he would isolate me.  And he would give me the silent treatment.  He would push me around, but it wasn’t—it was just like push shove.  It wasn’t a full on beating, so I was confused.  But the first beating happened.  Yeah.  About a year and a half in our marriage.  End of 2005.  We were married summer of 2004.

Sheila: Right.  And then from there, things just escalated.  You caught him using porn, and he tried to hide it.  But then he stopped hiding it.  He would just use it while you were in the room.  Even when your parents were in the room.  He just didn’t care.  So his behavior is getting worse and worse.  But at the same time, he’s on staff at churches in the U.S.  

Naghmeh: Yeah.  Our church here.  He was on staff.  Yep.  While they know that he’s watching porn.

Sheila: Yeah.  So really problematic behaviors obviously.  And how are you trying to make sense of your marriage in those days before prison?

Naghmeh: That I was going to be this amazing godly woman that I had strived to be.  So I was going to do my part of the contract of obedience to the Bible.  So I was going to honor him.  I was going to obey my husband.  I was going to submit to him.  And then if he didn’t hold up to his part of the bargain of loving me and treating me right, that was between him and God.  But I was going to please God by obeying the Bible myself.  That no matter what I was going to submit to him and just treat him right even when he didn’t treat me right.  And I just saw it as a hard marriage.  But there were times where—I’ve always shared the Gospel with Muslims.  There was times that I would literally be sharing the Gospel with a Muslim woman, and they would be telling me their story of their husbands’ porn addictions and beating.  And I would say, “That’s my marriage.  What do I have to say to them?  Do I say Christian marriage is different?”  I remember a few times I was like, “Wow.  Their marriage is so much like mine.  I’m supposed to be in a Christian marriage, and they’re in a Muslim marriage where they’re allowed.  The Koran actually says they’re property.  And they’re supposed to be beaten.”  So those were times where I start thinking, “Wow.  This is strange.  How my marriage is so similar to a nonbeliever.”  But I just thought it was a hard marriage, and I was just going to honor God by obeying my part of the contract, I guess.  Obedience and submission to my husband.

Sheila: Wow.  And then in those years, of course, you and your husband were arrested multiple times, but you were let go.  And then at one of the low points in your marriage, you’re remaining in the U.S.  He goes back to Iran to start the orphanage.  And while there, he gets arrested.  And he’s in prison.  And that’s when you went into overdrive to raise awareness about—

Naghmeh: Get him out.  To get my visa out.  It’s so confusing to people.  So at that time, I literally was a shell of a person.  I remember one of my interviews so vividly saying, “It’s hard for me to make decisions.  I would process everything with my husband.”  I literally said that in some of my first interviews because I literally could not make a decision without Saeed.  I was a shell of a person.  I didn’t believe in my own thinking.  I was afraid things I was going to say was going to be stupid and wrong.  Even when I would read Scripture and I would tell Saeed something, he would say, “Oh, you’re so limited in your understanding.”  I even felt like I lacked understanding reading the Bible.  And to be honest, I had stopped reading the Bible.  And I had stopped really having much of a relationship with God.  In my wanting to submit to and obey my husband, he had become lord.  I really didn’t have much of a connection with Jesus anymore in terms of I was saved, but I was not praying as much or reading the Bible.  But I had become a shell of a person where Saeed was—had decided what I would wear, the amount of makeup I would put on which was a lot, the clothes.  He questioned my clothes.  So he got to choose what I wore.  Friends I saw.  So literally when he went to prison, I was like, “What do I do?”  I was trained to be controlled by him.  I had no idea how to function because I had to—because I had learned to get permission from him to do everything.  Literally.  Even the kids’ play dates I would run by him.  Like, “Can they play with this person today?”  They only could play with certain cousins once a month for two hours, for example.  Everything was controlled.  It might sound insane, but that’s how it was.  So when he went to prison, I start having to think for myself.  And I did my first interview.  You said we’ll get to that part.  But the first time I went to media to try to get him out.  The second time the abuse stuff went to media was actually not me.  It was leaked.  I waited six months.  I prayed and fasted, and I thought, “He’s going to get out.  They’re going to let him out.”  But after six months, it became clear that they were going to keep him there for a long time.  And actually, he might die in the prison.  And so we decided with his family, with his parents, with his sisters, we decided to go to media.  Of course, I would go to media because they were afraid to go to media because the Iranian government would not like that.   And their life could be threatened.  So as a single mom, I went to media, and it just blew up from there.  I thought I did so bad on the media because I was looking at a camera pretending I was talking to Hannity on Fox News.  Because the cameras were at my house.  I wasn’t able to—the request to be on the news was so fast that I didn’t have time to be in a studio.  So there was cameras in my home.  And I had to look at a camera and pretend I was talking to a person.  And I had my earpiece where the producer was saying stuff in my ear.  So I thought I did so bad.  And then people were like, “You’re so pretty.  You did so good.  You’re so well spoken.”  What?  That was the first time in a long time I had been affirmed of my looks, of the way I spoke.  And that was the beginning to my freedom.  As I was stepping into advocating for Saeed, to release him from his prison, I was in this cocoon.  I was fighting to get—I was actually getting wings to fly.  I was actually strengthening—God was strengthening my relationship with Him and giving me my identity in Him to be just confident, to be able to sit before Obama, and to sit before Trump, and to go to Congress and express my faith in Jesus.  And God really used Saeed’s imprisonment to share the Gospel which is what I’ve always—as an evangelist, that’s been my greatest desire has been to share the Gospel.  But God Saeed’s imprisonment, not only to share the Gospel in front of millions and hundreds of millions actually, but to also set me free which I didn’t see it at that time.  So why did I advocate for him?  Because my little god was really missing.  I was so dependent on Saeed.  I wanted to get him out.  But also I never imagined life as a single mom.  I think that was one of my fears.  And I also—what Iran did was wrong.  I was born Muslim.  I went to Iran as a Christian.  I got to see how Christians are hunted down, killed, and imprisoned.  And so I got to see persecution with my own eyes.  So this of Saeed being in prison gave me an opportunity to be vocal like, “This is what’s happening in Muslim countries.  This is what’s happening in Iran.  Christians are hunted down.”  And a lot of these countries, like Iran, say they have religious freedom.  So it actually gave me a platform to be a voice for the voiceless, for the many Christians, hundreds of thousands of Christians inside of Iran, that are killed and imprisoned and given the death sentence simply for being a Christian.  So those are the good things that came out of it.  But yeah.  I fought for him because what Iran had done was wrong also.  They should not be imprisoning Christians.

Sheila: Yeah.  And it was wrong.  And you raised awareness for all of the other Christians, who are imprisoned for the same thing.  I think it was really—it was noble.  I remember watching you back then and thinking how poised you were.  It’s amazing how you such low self esteem and you couldn’t see who you really were.  Your dad saw it.  It’s so clear that your dad saw it.  

Naghmeh: My dad did.  A lot of times people think abusers go for that low self esteem, low—I was middle—upper middle class.  I had a high self esteem.  Again, I didn’t think I was amazing—I just didn’t think about my looks.  I just was confident.  My dad had really poured that into me.  And so it really went from pretty high self confidence to zero.  And I think a lot of times abusers—people like me, people that do have confidence, that are actually not what we typically think are abused women—that becomes a goal for them to break them down.  So it’s not always—actually, a lot of times it’s not what we—who we typically think would be an abused woman.  Someone from poor, low self esteem kind of a person.  But a lot of times that’s not the case.  It’s really abuse is—goes across all economic and lines and all of that.  

Sheila: Yeah.  Absolutely.  Okay.  So he’s in prison, and you are out there.  You’re speaking to the—at UN.  You’re speaking in Europe.  You’re speaking in Congress.  You’re speaking everywhere.  You’re going all over the place to raise awareness.  And at the same time, Saeed gets a phone, and he’s able to talk to you.  And at first, the conversations are good, but they take a turn once you start getting famous.  And tell us about that turn.  

Naghmeh: Yes.  At first, they’re good.  At first, I’m shocked that he even has a phone in maximum security.  One of the worst prisons in Iran.  What the heck?  His parents helped him get the money to the smugglers.  Cell phone was like—each cell phone was like $7,000.  Crazy amount of money for a cell phone, but he got access to a Smartphone about two and a half years into his imprisonment.  And at first, he seemed nice.  And I was like, “Wow.  Our marriage is going to work.”  Because before he left, it was so bad.  And then the attacks started.  He saw I was meeting with Obama and Trump, and he saw that I was on megachurches, churches of 30,000.  They would invite me to different conferences to speak.  So he also saw that I was not the woman that—when he went to prison.  He saw a different woman.  He saw a confident woman.  And he started attacking me.  At that time, I didn’t understand why he started attacking me.  But he was saying, “You’re a whore.  You’re Jezebel.  Don’t think they’re clapping for you.  Don’t be so confident.  They’re clapping for me.  It’s my name, Saeed Abedini, that they’re clapping for.  Once I come out, I’m going to divorce you,” which he did.  “I’m going to divorce you, and no one is going to care about you.  It’s all about me.”  So he really wanted to make sure I was a nobody, which I didn’t understand why until later that he saw my confidence building.  And he needed to crush it, so he could still control me.  And I literally became a slave.  Every money I made went to all of his family.  

Sheila: Yeah.  This part I found unbelievable.  So his family—a lot of them are living with you.  You’re cooking and cleaning and doing everything for them at the same time as you’re doing all this stuff.  And he’s making you pay their cell phone bills and for them to go on vacation.  

Naghmeh: Oh, he had his mom and dad and then his older sister lived in—his mom and dad would travel back and forth to Iran and Turkey because Turkey—they had—Saeed had two siblings living in Turkey as refugees.  They had to flee as well.  And then his older sister lived in America.  And also I think maybe part of it is the Middle Eastern culture.  The older son is responsible in some ways.  But I was not—I was responsible for grown people in their late 20s, early 30s.  His sister was going to college, and she was in her early 30s.  And I was responsible to send $3,000, $5,000 for her to go on spring break or summer vacation or whatever.  When they were not with me, they were usually with me or traveling with me.  All of their trips back and forth, their living expenses, their iPads, computers, cell phones, anything they got plus pocket money was supposed to come from me.  I remember one time Saeed even called and said, “My sister and brother in Turkey they haven’t had—they only eat steak once a week.”  He wanted me to pay enough money so they could go to nice restaurants as refugees and enjoy life in Turkey.  And so here I’m paying for living expenses in Turkey for them.  Every—

Sheila: And you don’t have very much money.    

Naghmeh: No.  People don’t realize.  ACLJ was my lawyers who advocate for Saeed.  People donated mostly to them which on to lawyer costs.  So it didn’t go to me.  Franklin Graham advocated for me, but a lot of the money went to Franklin Graham’s organization to advocate for me.  So it didn’t come to me.  Also some people sent the money directly to the church, but it wasn’t a lot.  Maybe it was like—let’s say at max maybe $50,000 had been raised.  But all of that went to Saeed’s mom.  Any time she went to the doctor I had to pay all the medical bills, emergency rooms.  All of it.  I have receipts from the church.  None of it I received for myself or the kids.  All of it went to their expenses because I was responsible for their medical bills.  Everything.  And so I—people don’t realize.  Literally, I was still driving an old van when I was advocating for Saeed.  I didn’t buy myself a new car.  And I was living with my parents.  I am right now.  And so I didn’t really get rich off of it to buy this amazing house, or, again, even the house I’m at right now is my parent’s house.  People don’t realize I did not get rich off of advocating for Saeed.  And I did pay off a house we had that we had rented, and I had paid that off which we had to sell when the divorce became final.  And majority of what I got from the house went to lawyer costs.  I had to pay my lawyer over $50,000 because Saeed dragged this whole divorce out so much.  But yeah.  I didn’t get rich, but I was a slave.  I was literally making money to pay for Saeed and his whole entire family.  He had a few $7,000 cell phones because they kept confiscating it and throwing him in solitary confinement.  So I had to keep raising—collecting $7,000, sending it.  In the course of the year that he had a cell phone, he probably changed—they probably confiscated his phone four or five times.  That’s like $30,000 just on cell phone.  So people don’t realize—yeah.  That.  But I was a slave.  I was working for them to have a comfortable life.

Sheila: Right.  So here you are.  You’re advocating as hard as you can.  You’re doing all of these interviews.  You’re traveling wherever you can talk and raise awareness, but you’re also paying for his family.  And at the same time, he’s on the phone telling you that you’re a whore and a Jezebel.

Naghmeh: Jezebel.  That’s his favorite word.

Sheila: Right.  And there came to be a breaking point where you were supposed to go to a speaking engagement.  You didn’t think you could do it.  And you were sitting down with a pastor.  And everything just poured out of you.  Can you tell us about that?

Naghmeh: Yeah.  I had stopped talking to Saeed.  I had drawn my first boundary.  I had said, “Saeed, don’t call me if you’re going to be mean to me.”  And so he had stopped calling me.  So people who understand about emotional connection or emotional attachment it was so hard for me not to talk to Saeed.  So I had a week of not talking to him.  But he kept still sending messages, emojis, through Skype.  Like throw up emoji or you’re disgusting.  You’re a Jezebel.  But I wasn’t responding.  And so I finally broke, and I said, “I don’t understand.  I’m advocating for him.”  It was at a big church.  Megachurch in North Carolina.  Pastor David Chadwick’s church.  And I finally broke in front of him and his wife.  I said, “I don’t know why he’s calling me names,” because Pastor Chadwick would always say, “Your husband must be so proud of you.”  And I was like, “No.  He’s actually calling me names.  I don’t get it.  I’m trying to get him out.  And I’m struggling.”  And he said, “You’re an abused wife.”  I literally told him everything.  And I just cried.  And I just—because having been raised in the Christian culture of not airing dirty laundry but also Middle Eastern culture, you don’t talk about your personal marriage issues.  I had held everything in, and I just told him everything I could remember.  And he looked at me, and he said, “You know what?  I’m not just the pastor.  I’m a psychologist.  I have a doctorate in psychology, and you’re an abused wife.”  And that’s when I go the diagnosis that I was not just in a hard marriage, but I was actually an abused wife.

Sheila: Wow.  And shortly thereafter, you sent an email to your supporters explaining all of this.  And someone leaked that to the media.

Naghmeh: Yes.  I looked up abuse, which I think for a lot of people when they look up abuse is when it comes to light what they’re under.  I think a lot of times your body is telling you you’re under abuse even though you don’t fully understand it.  So I looked up the word abuse, and everything was a playbook.  It seemed like Saeed had followed this or the book people had written or the Internet material had looked at our lives and people have written off of our lives.  So when I realized, “Wow.  This is everything that’s in my marriage from physical to emotional to psychological from the isolation to the silent treatment.  They’re all abuse,” I broke.  I had a, literally, emotional breakdown, and I wrote an email to a group of supporters that had always been faithful in keeping my secrets.  Before I would be able to tell these group of supporters things I was going through and it had never been leaked.  And so I thought they are people that love Saeed, but they’ve been my backbone in a way.  They’ve supported me through this.  I told them, “I am an abused wife.”  And within hours, it had been leaked to media, and I was just getting calls from Franklin Graham and ACLJ and Washington Post and Christianity Today.  I was just like getting so many calls trying to get me to comment on that.

Sheila: Right.  And many people wanted you to retract telling you that you were the one harming the cause of Christ instead of saying, “No.  Saeed was harming the cause of Christ.”

Naghmeh: Yeah.  Initially, there’s people that—a lot of people said—just a lot of my advisors said, “Say that you were mentally—you’ve been on medication.  And you didn’t mean to say it.  You’ve been under a lot of stress.”  And I said, “No.  I think I’m finally getting clarity, and I’m not on medication.”  But Franklin, as I’ve shared—and there’s voice messages.  And there’s emails to back that.  Really tried to bully me into silence and said that I was damaging the cause of Christ.

Sheila: Mm-hmm.  Mm-hmm.  Which I find so heart breaking.  So shortly thereafter, he is released.  He doesn’t call you when he’s released.  He calls his family.

Naghmeh: No.  Because I told him not to call me if he couldn’t be nice, so he didn’t call me.  

Sheila: Right.  So he’s released.  He doesn’t call you.  The media is waiting to see your reunion, and it doesn’t happen.  You can’t get to Germany because you don’t have your passport.  All these things happen.  And Franklin Graham is trying to get you to come, and you just don’t feel right about it.  You don’t feel safe.  Tell me about your email to Anne Graham Lotz.

Naghmeh: Well, initially, he wanted me to fly to Germany to see Saeed, and I—there was reasons for that.  I couldn’t go.  Because taking kids out of the country, Saeed would have a lot of power.  Because Saeed had threatened to take the kids.  And then Franklin really convinced me to go to the Billy Graham Retreat Center in North Carolina.  It was January.  End of January of 2016.  And I agreed.  As I was packing, I just felt like God was just like—there was something.  I was sick to the pit of my stomach.  And I said, “God, give me a confirmation I’m not supposed to go.”  And Anne Graham calls me.  And, of course, she also sent an email that is out there.  She said, “Don’t go.  Why do you care about the Graham name so much?  We’re not God.”  And she basically was like, “Don’t listen to Franklin.  He doesn’t get it.”

Sheila: And for our listeners, Anne Graham Lotz is Franklin Graham’s sister.  And both Franklin and Anne are Billy Graham’s children, just for true clarification.

Naghmeh: Yeah.  Anne Graham Lotz is Franklin’s sister and Billy Graham’s daughter, which a lot of times, I guess, Billy Graham said that she’s the most like him.  Yeah.  She said, “Don’t go.”  And she said—made some interesting comments about Franklin that was—that media has shared.  She really was God’s confirmation.  Through her phone call is what saved me because she said, “You’re going to a retreat with little cell reception.”  She’s like, “I’ve been there.  And it’s winter.  There’s so much snow.”  There was a snowstorm.  She said, “You’re about 50 miles from anywhere, and you’re going to be alone with your abuser.”  She said, “You get this.”  And she really explained things to me and helped me see it which was very brave of her because she was—I don’t know if she still is.  But she was on Franklin Graham’s board with Samaritan’s Purse and the Billy Graham.  It would have affected her own livelihood going against her brother, but she—God really used her to confirm to me that I should not go.  And that’s when Franklin really turned on me.  I mean before then he had already turned on me.  The moment the abuse broke out he called me an adulteress.  The moment Saeed got out of prison he said, “There’s two sides to every story.  Don’t just believe Naghmeh’s side.”  And he’d already said things.  But the moment I literally refused to go to North Carolina he became—I became his number one enemy because I had not listened to him.  

Sheila: Right.  And then you did end up having a meeting with him.  You took your lawyer and your pastor.  And that meeting was recorded.  I have listened to the recording twice.  I listened to it when it first released, and then I listened to it earlier this week.  To say it is infuriating is an understatement because Franklin Graham said that his purpose was just reconciliation because that was best for you.  And he just wanted that to happen.  But he spent the majority of that conversation talking and didn’t let you talk.

Naghmeh: And attacking me.

Sheila: And attacking you.  And even attacking Scripture when you read it saying that it wasn’t applicable.  

Naghmeh: Oh, he didn’t want me to read Scripture.  He didn’t want me to read Scripture.

Sheila: And at one point, you read the Ephesians—I think it’s the 5 passage.  

Naghmeh: 1 Corinthians 5 verses 9 through 13 where it says don’t associate with a brother who (cross talk).  And so he didn’t want me to read that.  He’s like, “Argh.”

Sheila: And then when you did, he said, “That doesn’t apply to marriage.”  So the passage says, “Don’t associate.  Do not even eat with them.”

Naghmeh: Abusers.

Sheila: And he said that doesn’t apply to marriage.  

Naghmeh: No.  And the entire time he called me a liar and defended Saeed’s honesty.  

Sheila: Yes.  Yeah.  It was really unbelievable.  It was a difficult conversation to listen to.  I was so proud of you though.

Naghmeh: I can say I have given advice to abused women in this way.  I would not have recorded if my abuse counselor had not said, “Record it.  And take two witnesses,” because Franklin had used the smallest thing to say to media, “Naghmeh doesn’t want the marriage to work.  Blah, blah, blah.”  They said, “He’s going to come out of that meeting.  He’s going to twist things.  And then you have no proof what you said and what you didn’t say.  So record it.”  And Franklin knew I was recording.  There was no hiding it.  The phone was on the table.  And also I had two witnesses.  So I am so glad I did that.  I am so glad I did that.  But you can see with Franklin knowing that there’s two witnesses—it’s not just me and him.  Whereas before it would be just me and him, he was a much bigger bully.  There is not just me and him.  There’s two witnesses, lawyer and my pastor.  So lawyer means he has to really be careful what he says.  And it’s being recorded.  Still Franklin acted so crazy on that recording.  This is him knowing that it’s being recorded, and there’s two witnesses next to me.  And still Franklin said things that is just unbelievable.

Sheila: Yeah.  That abuse is when a man comes home drunk and hits his wife and kids.

Naghmeh: Every night.  Every night.  He actually mentioned to my pastor he—if it doesn’t happen often, it’s probably not abuse.  The woman was probably sassy and talking back.  But even then, he talks about how those kind of marriages where the man beats his wife every night he, I guess, reconciled the husband and wife.  And the husband eventually ended up in an altercation with police and shot a police or something.  So he’s like yeah.  He saved this marriage with this abuser that nearly killed someone, and he’s proud of it—of saving that marriage.

Sheila: Yeah.  It was very, very, very bad.  And you kept to your main point.  This is what I thought was so good is that you only had one main point, and you kept saying it over and over.  And your pastor kept saying it over and over which is the only thing that you want is safety and for Saeed to show that he’s serious about not abusing you anymore.  And you had things for him to do which is see these two abuse counselors.  That’s the only thing you asked for.  And over and over again, Franklin Graham was telling you that you needed to compromise.  That what were you going to do to restore the marriage.  You need to understand there needs to be give and take.  It was unbelievable.

Naghmeh: And I called him out on calling me the cheater while Saeed was the cheater.  And there was silence there.  I think that’s where he actually got mad and looked at my pastor and said, “Why didn’t you tell me who Saeed was,” when I called Franklin out for calling me a cheater while Saeed actually—the woman he was advocating for, at that point on his social media, was the woman he had been cheating with during our marriage.  So yeah.  So Franklin knowing that Saeed had confessed adultery to him, beating me, whatever he confessed, he still was bullying me.  “What are you going to do to save the marriage?”  

Sheila: Mm-hmm.  And it was clear that Franklin was not after your best interest.  He was only after the marriage being restored so that the reputation of the work—

Naghmeh: He could be the hero. 

Sheila: Yeah.  Yeah.

Naghmeh: Honestly, I don’t even think it was—yeah.  He maybe thought it was the reputation of Christianity or the cause of Christ.  But I think he really—it was his own reputation.  He had backed Saeed.  And also he had sent a lot of—he spent a lot of money on our family.  And he was making a documentary that I had signed the rights over to him for Saeed’s life.  And he had already sent people filming, and he already pretty much made the documentary.  And so I think it was damaging a lot of his pocket and also his own reputation of having backed Saeed.  But people would have understood if he said, “I didn’t know.”  So which is interesting, years later—last year, Washington Post interviewed him again.  And that’s six years later after the incident.  He said—they asked him like, “You called Naghmeh and adulteress on a phone call.”  And he said, “Yep.  And I would do it again.”  He did not backtrack.  He did not say, “Oh, I didn’t understand abuse.  I’m sorry.”  He dug his heel in even deeper.

Sheila:  I was at an event last week, and there was a woman there who was supposed to go directly from the event.  So she was talking to me afterwards.  To her church because the elders had called her in to have a meeting with her and her husband because she was supposed to apologize to her husband.  And she was explaining to me the dynamics in the marriage.  And the husband had been really abusive and had been complaining that she wasn’t obeying.  And so the elders had called her in so that she could apologize.  And I remember saying to her, “You don’t have to go.  They don’t have your best interest at heart.”  But she was saying, “But my husband hasn’t talked to me.  This is the only way to get my husband to talk to me.”  And so I said, “You need to take an advocate.  Do not ever go into that alone.”  

Naghmeh: All alone.  Nope.

Sheila: And I just thought you handled it really well.  And I know you got coaching before that meeting of what to do which was so helpful.  But so many women get pulled into these meetings where they get bullied by people who are not interested in their safety or their wellbeing.  

Naghmeh: Yes.  Bring an advocate.  Bring two.  Bring two witnesses the Bible says.

Sheila: Or you don’t even have to go.

Naghmeh: You don’t have to go.  Nope.  That was my thing.  Franklin and Saeed really pushed me for a meeting.  Franklin was in Boise for a Decision America tour.  And I said, “You know what?  I will not come unless I have two witnesses, and I record it.”  That’s my agreement.  So I highly recommend that.  And I was coached.  So a lot of things.  People don’t know I have another recording that’s not as—I had met with Saeed.  And I had recorded, and I had brought two witnesses.  So I had a trial one practice before this.  And Saeed had set things.  As my abuse counselor said, he had thrown things.  And I had taken the bait.  He had thrown things.  So I shared that tape, recording, with my abuse counselor, and he’s like, “Naghmeh, don’t talk much.  Don’t take the bait.”  He coached me through the mistakes I made in that meeting.  And so the one with Franklin I had already failed once with a private meeting with Saeed with two witnesses that I had brought.  But he’d also brought a number of people.  So yeah.  I just suggest be careful not to take the bait.  And don’t throw your pearls before pigs.  What’s precious to you you’re throwing before people who don’t—not only will not understand it but will attack you.  And yeah.  Don’t go to those meetings.  And if you do, go with advocates.  Go with people that get abuse that can stand up for you.  And I highly suggest recording it in some way because people twist so much of what you say.  And they can use it against you.

Sheila: And I do need to say legally that sometimes you can’t record without the other’s permission in certain states.  So we just want to say that.  But yes.  Yes.  But you can make that a condition of the meeting.  

Naghmeh: Yes.  That’s what I did.  I made that as a condition for the meeting.  I said, “I will meet.  If you guys have nothing to hide, I’m going to bring two witnesses, and I will record.  And if that’s not okay with you guys, then I don’t have to meet.  I don’t really need to meet.”

Sheila: Yeah.  And then there was other things that Franklin Graham was involved in.  He sent Saeed with bodyguards and a whole contingent to your house with no warning when there was a protection order.  This was really bullying behavior on Franklin Graham’s part and really, really problematic.  But you rose above it.  Saeed ended up being the one to initiate the divorce, didn’t he? 

Naghmeh: He divorced me.  

Sheila: Yeah.      

Naghmeh: Because after I asked him for—to get help on the abuse, he was done.  Someone told me that—I think it’s a mutual friend maybe.  Tom Pride.  

Sheila: Yes.  Yes.  

Naghmeh: He told me.  He’s like, “Naghmeh, the moment you draw boundaries he will divorce you.”  I was like, “No.  He won’t.  He’s going to fight for our marriage.”  He’s like, “Naghmeh, the moment you draw boundaries you’re no longer going to be his slave.  He only wants a slave.  He does not want someone with opinions,” and I didn’t believe Tom Pride.  And then the moment I said, “You have to get help on your abuse,” he filed for divorce the next day.  Within days of it.

Sheila: Right.  So that’s now settled, and you’re raising your kids.  And you’ve had some heartbreaks since.  Your father passed away of COVID.  And I’m so sorry about that because he was—

Naghmeh: I’ve gone through some depression, anxiety to a point where I couldn’t function at all.  And so just—I think it was good for me.  It really slowed me down to process everything because it really helped me to process the war, coming to—a lot of things in my life I hadn’t really sat down to process.  That time where I was depressed and couldn’t really do anything I was processing my life with God and really thinking and taking it to God for prayer.  There was a lot of healing that happened during that time actually.

Sheila: Mm-hmm.  I want to read one paragraph from the book where you’re talking about the unwanted divorce and what happened when your marriage broke down.  And you said this, “When God helped me to see that it was biblical to create boundaries with Saeed because of the abuse and adultery, I discovered that God cares more about the person within an institution such as marriage than about trying to keep the institution intact.  This was a revelation to me.  Jesus came to save people, not institutions.  God reminded me that when Jesus was on earth many of the religious leaders had been so concerned about keeping the Sabbath day that they actually objected when Jesus healed people on the Sabbath.  Their manmade rules for the Sabbath became more important to them than the wellbeing of suffering people, and they failed to understand these words of God spoken by the prophet Hosea, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”

Naghmeh: That was the biggest revelation that set me free, and God showed it to me through Sabbath that institutions—whether they fall, they fall.  Marriage, church, pastor has sinned.  It falls to pieces.  Like God be like, “Oh no.  I don’t want the institution.”  God is not worried about that.  I mean he revealed David’s sin.  David was a king.  He cares about the person.  It always goes back to the person.  And we try so hard to keep institutions intact like churches and like, “Oh no.  People can’t find about this pastor has done that.  It’s going to destroy the church.”  Oh well.  If the institution was put there—not if—the institution of marriage, church, it was put there to protect, to nourish.  That people would flourish under it, would thrive under it, not die under it, and not shrivel under it.  But instead thrive and to be who God called them to be.  So it’s not protecting.  If it’s not nourishing and if it’s not—if you’re the head and, according to the Bible, if you’re not being a slave, literally washing the feet of the person you’re supposed to be the head of—people that believe in that.  If you’re not literally serving them to thrive and to be the best person they can be and you’re not protecting them and you’re not nourishing them and you’re not feeding them, then let the institution fall apart.  If a marriage is causing a life harm—and a lot of times it might not be physical but because of the emotional and spiritual, all of that, and the sexual stuff you talk about—if the person develops autoimmune, they’re literally—they feel dead inside like I did before Saeed went to prison then what is that institution worth if it’s not representing Christ to us if it’s a church or a marriage?  Then why are we protecting it so much.  And really I—a lot of times people say, “What do you have to say to pastors or people that are in these institutions?   Why are you so afraid of this stuff coming out?  And why are you so afraid of the marriage falling apart or the church falling apart?”  And so a lot of times because people are afraid of the church falling apart or the marriage, they silence the abused and—because they think they’re doing God a favor by protecting the institution.  That’s not the God of the Bible.  The God of the Bible is for the weak.  It’s for the person.  And if the institution falls apart, let it fall apart.

Sheila: Amen.  I really enjoyed the end of your book where you’re talking about where you are now.  I found it fascinating how you’re someone who—you always wanted to be an evangelist.  And you’re really spanning two cultures.  So you’re seeing the American, megachurch, Christian culture, but you’re also seeing the explosion of the church in Iran which is largely women led.  

Naghmeh: Yes.  Do you guys realize how radical this is in a country that has been run by Islam for 1,400 years where women are second class citizens?  Literally called property by the Koran.  These women that have been so crushed in society are leading, and men are honoring them in that leadership.  Do you guys realize how radical that is for the Middle East?  It’s pretty radical—it would be radical for America.  But this is really radical for the Middle East for a woman to be leading and for men to be honoring that position of leadership in women.

Sheila: Yeah.  I love it.  And more recently, you’ve made some critiques of the American church.  Do you want to tell us about what you found out about a single mom at your church who went to get help?

Naghmeh: You were part of that drama.

Sheila: I was.  I sent you a message on that one.  

Naghmeh: It’s interesting.  I kept reading your message.  At first, I was like, “No.  I’m not part of a toxic church.  Come on.  I’ve known these people for 20 some years.”  I’m not part of that church anymore.  I don’t know if I told you.

Sheila: No.

Naghmeh: It took me awhile to reach that conclusion.  I had known these leaders for so long.  And I just couldn’t believe that they could be enabling things.  So we had a single mom that went to our church for help.  She was about to be homeless.  And this is a woman that goes to Sundays, Wednesdays, serves at the church, had been homeless before where she slept in her car and her kids were in different homes because of that.  And she was terrified of it.  And one of our pastors saw that and instead of raising funds for her, well, she was given $200, $250 and said, “Don’t ask for any more handouts.  And this is going to be the last time we help you.  Don’t come back.”  And at the same time, one of our pastors was raising $75,000 to go to Europe with his family on a mission trip.  At the same time, our—I got a hold of our church pie chart, and our church has an income of $5 million.  And that really blew my mind.  I’ve always thought my—the house church movement and the work of the Holy Spirit in Iran, that I went through the abuse, I never connected it all.  And God started connecting it all to me and is like, “Well, you saw how the Holy Spirit moves in the house churches, how women are honored.”  How I met Saeed—I met him in a building church.  He was one of the worship leaders.  And house churches you have to minister to 10, 15 people.  And the first person to be arrested and tortured is the shepherd.  And so not a lot of narcissists want to lead house churches.  It’s a lot of work.  It’s a lot of—you’re the first to go.  You’re literally laying down your life for the sheep.  You don’t get a book deal.  You don’t get money.  You don’t get fame.  And so I was putting two and two together of why are we seeing this in Iran and in America we’re seeing such an epidemic.  And yes, I criticize—my hope is healing for the church.  I think that’s why you speak.  Is I realized it’s the whole structure.  We have this structure that a few on top serve, and the rest of the body of Christ is sitting.  We’re sitting in wheelchairs.  Let’s say after 20, 30 years someone—you’re sitting in a wheelchair, and someone says, “Get up and walk,” you can’t.  Your legs have not been moving.  And so we have a paralyzed body of Christ with a few serving at top.  We’re throwing idols.  We’re throwing money at them.  They’re really rich.  And they’re doing really well while the poor and the single moms are wasting away, which that’s not the early church.  And that’s not the church in Iran.  The Bible says the book of Acts that no one was in need.  Everyone took care of each other from the money that came in.  But in the American church, 80% of the money that comes in goes to the building to keep the four shows a Sunday going.  80% goes there.  And whatever else is left over goes to other things.  And it’s just not biblical the way we’ve—we have been doing church is so opposite of the Bible.  And it’s allowing for abusers to thrive, and it’s silencing the abused which is so opposite of the heart of God.  I actually had a speaker—I guess Lance Ford.  He wrote something called UnLeader.  And I got to have a conversation with him.  He pretty much said a lot of the same thing that the way actually—he calls it—he told me.  “It’s wicked the way we’re—it’s so antibiblical the way we’re doing church right now.  It’s so anti what the Bible says.”

Sheila: Yeah.  So at the end of your book, you talk about how you’re involved in new initiatives to help women in Iran who are victims of domestic violence and to try to span between the different churches.  And I thought it was fascinating.  So as we’re just ending up, is there anything that listeners can do for you to help you in your ministry today?

Naghmeh: Well, I do still in the underground church in Iran and Afghanistan.  I do not make money off of ministry.  Everything that’s raised goes straight to these people that are in need.  A lot of them are women that have come out of domestic abuse.  It’s a lot of women by the well that have come out of marriages and horrible situations that Christ is using to reach—take the Gospel to one of the darkest places in the world.  And so I just ask fellow women and people to really support that.  And also yeah.  I read a verse.  I think it’s in Luke 8.  I think it’s verse 2 that said Jesus names women, and He says, “They helped Jesus by their own private means.”  And I think I also have a heart to continue to help people coming out of abuse in this country.  I’ve had single moms live with me.  I have been to court cases.  Just been at the ground fighting with them, for them, and yeah.  You can find me on social media or help the cause in the Middle East.  Right now there’s just a lot of things happening there.  So and the Christians continue to be slaughtered and killed for their faith.  And, again, a lot of these are women who have come out of abuse.  

Sheila: Yeah.  Well, we will put links to your social media and to where you can help support the causes in the podcast notes.  So please check for that.  And, again, Naghmeh’s book is I Didn’t Survive.  It’s honestly a really wonderful read.  You will see Jesus in the pages.  It’ll challenge how you see the church in North America.  And it’s an important read, so please pick it up.  I Didn’t Survive.  We will put links to where you can purchase that as well.  So, Naghmeh, thank you so much for being here.  I really appreciate it.

Naghmeh: Thank you for having me, Sheila.  I’m so honored to be on your podcast. Thank you.    

Sheila: And if you could just stick around for just a few more minutes, I would love to ask you some extra questions for our Patreon.  So if you join our patron listeners, then you can get some extra stuff from the podcast as well.    

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Sheila Wray Gregoire


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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Jane Eyre

    I’m so confused. When a man beats his wife and his wife says “my husband is beating me,” why is it the wife betraying the cause of Christ?

    Sometimes I want to do a New Testament translation, evangelical patriarchy edition. Remove everything wherein men have an obligation to see women as their sisters in Christ. Switch the “if your eye sins” passage with “if you cause a man three times your age to lust.” Completely gut the part about a man being obligated to live his wife’s body as his own.

    • Lisa Johns

      I would probably help you with some book purchases…

  2. Codec

    I find it kinda interesting really how churches and people can both be incredible in serving and how they can fall short simultaneously.

    Franklin is in the wrong here. Nagmeh by definition is not the adulterers if she is the one who has been cheated on.

    On the other hand Franklin has done a lot of good for Jesus.

    Sheila thank you for helping me grow as a person.

    I also find it interesting as an American that churches do a whole lot for the community and that simultaneously they can wind up not being able to help as they should. I have seen a lot of pregnancy centers and such run by churches but I also see a lot of fear at times that the church will be sabotaged from the inside. Not an unfounded fear to be sure as Jude says but also not something to obsess over.

    • Lisa Johns

      It infuriates me that he had the GALL to accuse her of adultery, when Sayeed had already CONFESSED TO HIS OWN ADULTERY!!!
      Like a woman wanting out of an abusive marriage would only choose t leave if she had someone waiting in the wings…

  3. Nathan

    Translation: Why is Naghmeh betraying the cause of Male Patriarchy?

    When wanting to be safe becomes a “betrayal”, something is very, very broken.

  4. Nathan

    > > On the other hand Franklin has done a lot of good for Jesus.

    True enough, and the fact is that very few people are COMPLETELY good or bad. I the case of Franklin, he appears to be basically a good person who is still stuck in the attitude of Patriarchy, women exist only to serve men, the marriage itself is more important than the health and safety of the people IN the marriage, and so on. If he could overcome those things, he could become a true shining light.

    What was really infuriating, though, is Franklin seeming to say that some level of physical abuse is okay, that it doesn’t become wrong until you do it a lot. In other words, if Donny beats Marcia once or twice a week, God’s cool with it. But three times and Donny’s going to Hell.

    And too many times have we seen the call go out for reconciliation, without any mention of calling out abusive behavior and demanding that it stop.

    • Codec

      I think you have it right with your analysis. I find it disturbing when people discount psychological and verbal abuse. I also find it strange that people think abuse has to look like some one getting beaten to a pulp. It is weird. I don’t think Franklin is nearly as bad as the things you see in Love and Respect. He has helped reconcile people and has done a lot of good unlike that book which is really bad and has helped very few.

      • Jo R

        Bur has he really, truly reconciled people? Or has he merely reconciled wives to stop complaining about husbands who are abusive in some way

        That is essentially, if I understand correctly, what Eggerichs does in L&R: convinces women to just accept unrepentant husbands and stop bringing up major issues. Graham sure did a full-court press on Naghmeh to accept HER clearly unrepentant husband. 🤔

        • Lisa Johns

          That is a REALLY good question! Because to judge based on the way he pressured Naghmeh, I’d say that it’s quite possible that he simply put enough pressure (via gaslighting!) on the wives to make them shut up and say everything was OK in the end — and this is NOT reconciliation!
          That part of the story was so appalling. It seemed that Graham was so invested in seeing the story turn out the way *he* envisioned, that he had no time to listen or minister to the hurting human being in front of him — the classic case of the ministry being more important than the people it was supposed to help. His ministry has then become his god, and it will not save him in the end. I would not want to be standing in front of the throne saying, “But Lord, didn’t I pack shoe boxes and send mercy ships in Your name?” Ouch.

          • Sheila Wray Gregoire

            I completely agree.

  5. Hannah

    Hi BM team, is audio from an older episode (155) linked? I’m listening on the bus so going for the less data option! Thank you.

  6. Nathan

    Jo R’s comment…

    > > has he really, truly reconciled people? Or has he merely reconciled wives to stop complaining about husbands who are abusive in some way

    This is a very good question. I’ve seen this before, where people nobly call for “reconciliation”, and meaning just get back together and stop making noise. It seems to me that TRUE reconciliation would mean the abuser (and not always the husband) stops the bad behavior, directly says that it was wrong, acknowledges the harm it caused, and promises to work hard to avoid this in the future.

    In this case, Franklin appears to be saying calling out the bad behavior is worse than the behavior itself. Because, once again, the “problem” is people complaining about being abused, not the abuse itself.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, that’s my take too.

  7. Micah

    I’ve come to the realization that the Lord can use literally ANYBODY for His purposes; He used the godless Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, and the Romans to carry out His will, so it’s no surprise if He can use abusive pastors and evangelists in spite of themselves. But there are some who will be broken and repent, while others will be proud and crushed.

    As for Franklin Graham, my view of him has been on the decline for several years, but I think this podcast took care of my last shred of respect for him. I listened to the entire recording of his meeting with Naghmeh, and he’s as bad as John Piper when it comes to abuse, a whitewashed tomb full of bones. His idea of “abuse” is limited to extreme, long-term physical violence, and it’s evident from his attitude that he believes truly godly women will put up even with that so long as their lives aren’t in imminent danger.

    I’m growing increasingly convinced that sons should not follow their fathers’ footsteps in ministry (or if they do, they need to work very hard to avoid riding on their fathers’ laurels).

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, that recording was absolutely awful. Keith and I listened to it together on a long drive recently to get ready for this podcast. I listened to it a year ago when it was first released but I wanted to remind myself of it. So, so terrible.

    • Daniela

      Could you please provide the link for the interview you mentioned. Thank uouy.

      • Nessie

        If you click on the link in “at the bottom of this post” (found under the section titled “THINGS MENTIONED IN THE PODCAST,” above) and scroll to the bottom of the article (not the entire page- it’s before the comments section) on that site, you can click to play audio there. Hope this helps.

  8. Angharad

    The more I think about it, the more I think that some kind of module on understanding domestic violence and abuse needs to be mandatory at Bible colleges for all pastors and leaders.

    I remember when this happened, the attitude of most Christian leaders betrayed a total lack of comprehension of domestic abuse. Comments were all along the lines of “she must be lying about the abuse because if the marriage was abusive, she would have separated as soon as she had the chance, not waited years while he was in prison. And if the marriage really was abusive, then she was dishonest raising money to fight for her husband’s release while pretending their marriage was ok.”

    The assumption was that if a marriage was abusive, the victim would leave the very first moment of opportunity. There was literally no understanding at all that it can take many, many months, even years, for a victim to realise the marriage is abusive and even longer for them to gather the emotional strength to be able to leave.

    I hope more Christian leaders would have a greater understanding now, but I fear someone going through the same experience now would hear the same comments from most.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I completely agree. Most pastors have no training in this.

    • JG

      I think there are many people who are abused and don’t even realize that it is abuse that is taking place. It has been made easier to hide abuse by misused and misapplied Scripture for more years than I can remember. I think that if the well-known leaders really wanted to make a difference in the world, they would repent of the false teachings and make things right with the people they hurt by those teachings. Some have, but most probably have not.


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