There is new hope, according to recent news reports, for the American hikers who have been held captive in Iran since July 2009. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said he will release the U.S. citizens this week and grant them a “unilateral pardon.”
Last summer, I first read an article about these three Americans, young graduates of Berkeley who had been imprisoned in Iran, who had been denied access to lawyers and communication, whose oppression was silent, heavy and huge.
Sara Shourd, Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer were friends at college, each committed to issues of justice and international peace. The trio lived in various places across the Middle East as they pursued activism. In July 2009, on holiday, they planned a recreational hike in the Iraqi Kurdistan mountains, which border Iran and are considered neutral territory.
The story splits here. Either the hikers mistakenly passed over the Iranian border, which is mostly unmarked, or Iranian forces crossed the border themselves, apprehended the hikers and brought them into Iranian custody. They were detained, kept from communication with each other and from any legal counsel. The charges against them included espionage and “intentionally acting against Iranian security.”
Shourd was released in the spring of 2010 because of poor health, but the two men have remained in prison awaiting trial. This past August, after months of imprisonment and in violation of Iran’s own laws on the detaining of unsentenced prisoners, the trial took place. Despite overwhelming testimony, proof of character and international support, Fattal and Bauer were sentenced to eight years in Iranian prison.
It has been difficult to comprehend the story surrounding these three people, the muddled ties of international relations and courts of law, the global slog for a justice that feels both necessary and fleeting. To dwell on injustice and its overwhelming power in the world is literally paralyzing. I feel completely unable to lift a thought or finger against it.
What has been encouraging is the presence of social media. The Facebook community Free the Hikers lets people offer prayers, condolences, news and good words about the trio. It even has an address for the prisoners, a place to send them mail.
Eric Volz, who has suffered his own unjust imprisonment in Nicaragua, has written that getting a letter from a complete stranger while he was being detained brought him out of “complete despair.” To know that sending a letter, liking a post or retweeting an article is an act of presence is something, I think, that echoes the Incarnation.
Christ is with us in all circumstances and in all ways - in flesh, in heart, in the movements of the Spirit. Clicking my mouse, as simply a physical act as it is, imports that spiritual connection, that embedded truth of Christ's presence with us, and with those who suffer. When people are trapped in circumstances that you cannot enter, it is remarkable to see the connection that the Internet provides, the way it can help us, as the Orthodox prayer goes, to “fight indolence.” The physical move of a mouse, a pen, my lips in prayer, go a long way in fighting the paralysis that injustice renders in me.
Last summer, I sent letters to Fattal and Bauer, not really knowing if it would get to them, but knowing it was necessary. And I would encourage you to do the same. I would encourage you to pray for their release, for courts and prisoners everywhere, for the mercy of the kingdom to keep coming.
I would encourage you to like the Free the Hikers Facebook community. I would encourage you to daily pray for those you don’t know whose days are spent in prison, whose lives now touch you through what you read, and think about, and remember.
It’s more than being a part of a grassroots movement or knowing the thrill of acting democratically. It is about encountering our own despair in the face of sin and carrying the despair of others, carrying them to hope.
And if those ways are through simple words on an Internet screen, those are words we have to take up as our own.
(Photo courtesy of Freethehikers.org.)