WASHINGTON -- The families of two American hikers held in Iran for 662 days brought in a literal heavyweight Tuesday to appeal for their release: boxing legend Muhammad Ali.
The three-time world heavyweight boxing champion appeared with other American Muslim leaders at a news conference to release a letter they sent to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khameni, pleading for the release of Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal.
The men were arrested with their friend Sarah Shourd -- who was released eight months ago -- while they were hiking on the ill-defined Iraq-Kurdistan border on July 21, 2009. They have been accused of espionage, a charge the three have steadfastly denied.
Ali, who suffers from boxing-related Parkinson's disease, wore sunglasses and had to be helped to walk into the National Press Club ballroom. As he sat motionless in a chair surrounded by Muslim community leaders, his wife Lonnie Ali spoke for him.
Noting that Ali will be 70 years old in January, she said that "when he was a young man, just like these two, Muhammad became a citizen of the world."
They, like the champ who defied the U.S. draft during the Vietnam War, weren't interested in policy or politics but only "wanted to experience other cultures, other peoples," she said. "Regardless of how things are going between the U.S. and Iran, the people of Iran are good people in their hearts and I can assure you they love this man. And based on that compassion, the love of Allah and the love of Muhammad, we ask for their release -- their compassionate release."
Ali appeared with representatives of some of the more than a dozen Muslim groups that signed the letter to Khameni.
"After listening to the families, we believe these Americans did not seek to cause any problems between the United States and Muslim world or the United States and Iran, but were in the region for the opposite purpose, to promote dialogue and understanding," the Muslim leaders wrote.
They noted that Bauer, a journalist, had enrolled in a peace and conflict studies program aimed at improving relations between the United States and the Muslim world. Fattal, it said, is dedicated to environmental and health issues. Both "are committed to continuing to build bridges between people of differing cultures and religions," the letter read.
Shourd, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder because of the ordeal, appealed to Muslim compassion as she sought to highlight the continued plight of her fiance Bauer and their friend Fattal.
Speaking about the time before their arrest -- when she and Bauer lived in Damascus, Syria -- Shourd recalled how they lived with a muezzin right outside their window and would hear the Muslim call to prayer "resound across our apartment like a giant drum."
"The same thing would happen in my cell in Evin prison. For 14 long months, every time the call to prayer would ring out, I would stop whatever I was doing and pray," said Shourd, who was raised a Christian. "Praying helped me feel connected to the other prisoners -- to people I would never see or talk to. In strengthening my connection to God, I stayed in touch with all the good and beauty in the world that I missed so much."
The mothers of the two men, both 28 years old, also appealed to Iranian authorities to end the suffering of their sons and the heartache of their families.
Laura Fattal said she hoped her son would be released before June 4, which would be Josh's second birthday spent in prison. Fattal's mother said her husband Jacob and Cindy Hickey, Bauer's mother, spoke briefly with their sons in separate phone calls Sunday morning, but that she was out because they had been given no advance notice of the calls. It was only the third time relatives had spoken with the men during their nearly 22 months in prison.
Among the Islamic leaders who signed the letter were the heads of the Islamic Society of North America, the Council on American Islamic Relations and Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the chairman of the controversial Park 51 Community Center project near Ground Zero in New York City.
This isn't the first time prominent American Muslims have appealed to Iran to free the hikers. In August of last year, Akbar Ahmed, a former Pakistani diplomat who now heads Islamic Studies at American University, wrote a similar letter to Khameni. Soon after, Iran released Shourd on $500,000 bail, citing humanitarian grounds.
Although the families hope this letter will spark a similar chronology of events, Iran has recently shown little inclination toward satisfying their appeal. The men were to appear in court May 11 but told their families Sunday that they were never taken from their cells. They have been given no explanation for the postponement.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, a commentator on state television in Iran scoffed at using the term "hikers" to refer to the Americans, saying the term was a "joke." It was the latest sign prosecutors aren't yet ready to drop their contention that the men were spies.