Modestly veiled and meting out her words as if to harness searing emotions, the mother of imprisoned American hiker Sarah Shourd released a video today appealing to Iran's top cleric to be compassionate in this holiday season and free her daughter and the trekking companions arrested with her, including Cheltenham-raised Joshua Fattal.

Shourd, Fattal and their friend Shane Bauer were hiking in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq when they accidentally crossed the border into Iran. They were arrested July 31.

Since then, the hikers have had no direct contact with their families. They were visited twice by Swiss envoys representing American interests in Iran. Washington and Tehran do not have diplomatic relations.

"Your Excellency," Nora Shourd says in the deferential, two-and-a-half-minute clip addressed to Iran's supreme leader Sayyid Ali Khamenei, "this time of year is one of spiritual reflection and prayer for all the faiths of the family of Abraham, each in their own way. It's the time of year when families come together. This human value unites us as children of God."

Language teacher Shourd, 31, photojournalist Bauer, 27, and environmentalist Fattal, 27, met as students at the University of California at Berkeley. They are experienced travelers and had periodically lived overseas. They began their ill-fated trip this summer in Damascus.

They are "good people," Nora Shourd continued. "They meant no harm to the Islamic Republic. . . and have a deep respect for your ancient and noble civilization. If they entered Iran it was an innocent mistake.. . . As Sarah's mother, and on behalf of the mothers of Shane and Josh, I respectfully apologize.... Please release our children and return them home to us."

Nora Shourd lives in California. Bauer's mother, Cindy Hickey, lives in Minnesota. Fattal's mother, Laura Fattal, lives in Elkins Park.

Earlier appeals by the mothers were addressed to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who at least initially made statements that seemed to recognize their emotional pain.

But speaking to reporters in Tehran last week Iran's foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki said the three hikers entered Iran with "suspicious aims" and would have to stand trial. A Tehran prosecutor has accused them of espionage.

The families strenuously deny that allegation as does Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who recently called it "totally unfounded."