When Naghmeh Panahi’s Christian-pastor husband was imprisoned in Iran, she found one of her biggest advocates in a powerful evangelical leader, the Rev. Franklin Graham.
Graham “took me under his wing,” Panahi said, and the two grew close between 2013 and 2015, texting and speaking by phone several times a month. Graham sent 71 emails to Panahi from his private Gmail account, according to a review by The Post. He boosted her story with his massive online following, sent private planes to whisk her to speaking engagements, bankrolled a trip to Disneyland for her two children and took her family out for a steak dinner in Boise. He helped turn her bright-yellow shirts, her husband’s favorite color, into a symbol for evangelicals who wanted to fight for religious freedom abroad.
But the unlikely friendship between Graham and an Iranian immigrant came to an abrupt halt — and since last fall, on social media and at a handful of churches and conferences across the country, Panahi has been more widely sharing why. Her then-imprisoned husband, Saeed Abedini, had abused her physically and emotionally for most of their 13-year marriage, she said, and when Graham first heard, he called her in November 2015.
“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 spoke with The Post during a fall 2020 interview, when he was in Washington for a march on the Mall. Graham declined to comment further on his phone call with Panahi in a recent request for an interview.
In the weeks that followed that phone call, Panahi said, Graham kept pushing her to stop talking about the abuse and reunite with Abedini, whom a family court judge later called “a habitual perpetrator of domestic violence.” (In a 2020 interview, Abedini denied all abuse allegations. He did not respond to a recent request for comment.)
In May, at a conference on abuse in churches, Panahi shared her story about how Graham had treated her. Two days later, the Southern Baptist Convention released the results of a third-party investigation into a years-long coverup of sexual abuse. The shocking report reignited outrage over the mishandling of abuse claims by evangelical leaders that included the 2018 backlash to Southern Baptist leader Paige Patterson’s attempt to persuade an abused woman to go back to her husband, fueling a #ChurchToo movement. (Patterson did not respond to a recent request for comment.)
Panahi’s experience with Graham offers another rare glimpse into how a towering figure in American religious life reacted to an abuse claim.
“Many women in America, and some men, are not in prison in Iran, but they’re in prison in the four walls of their own home,” Panahi said in an interview. “They’re not being believed by the church.”
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SOURCE: The Washington Post, Sarah Pulliam Bailey