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

Supporters of Shourd, Fattal, and their friend Shane Bauer say the three were hiking in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, accidentally crossed the border into Iran, and were arrested July 31.

They have since had no direct contact with their families and were visited only twice by Swiss envoys representing U.S. interests in Iran because Washington and Tehran do not have diplomatic relations.

"Your Excellency," Nora Shourd says in the deferential, 21/2-minute clip addressed to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah 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 over the 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 initially made statements that recognized their emotional pain.

But taking a tougher tone in comments to reporters in Tehran on Monday, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said the hikers entered Iran with "suspicious aims" and would have to be tried. A Tehran prosecutor has accused them of espionage. The families strenuously deny that, as does Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who recently called the allegation "totally unfounded."

Wednesday, in a speech on the Senate floor, Sen. Arlen Specter (D., Pa.) urged the State Department to seek Syria's help in trying to negotiate freedom for the Americans.

"I was talking to the Syrian ambassador yesterday, who advised me that when the five British citizens were taken into custody by Iran, the government of Great Britain made a request of the Syrian government to use their good offices to secure the release of the five British citizens. That request was made via Syria, and they were released. . . . If we have not asked the Syrians for help, my view is that we should," said Specter, who with Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) cosponsored a recently adopted Senate resolution urging Iran to release the hikers on humanitarian grounds.

Specter was referring to five British sailors released on Dec. 2. They had been been detained a week earlier after their racing yacht strayed into Iranian waters.

The State Department press duty officer did not immediately return a call for comment.

Also yesterday, the mothers appeared on NBC's Today show and said that while they believe their children are not in physical danger, they are worried about their psychological health due to loneliness because they are held mostly in isolation.

"We're desperate for a phone call," said Laura Fattal, adding that it is not uncustomary in such circumstances "to have a phone call between people who are detained and their parents."

Family and friends of the hikers - in California, in Minnesota, and locally, in Glenside - will hold "vigils of hope" Tuesday to send "support, prayers and positive energy" to the hikers, the vigil organizers say.

Local supporters plan to gather at Glenside Hall, 185 S. Keswick Ave., at 7:30 p.m. Parking will be available in the Glenside Public Library lot across the street.

To view Nora Shourd's

video plea to Iran, go to http://go.philly.com/hikers EndText

Contact staff writer Michael Matza at 215-854-2541 or mmatza@phillynews.com.