Newsline Special: Religious Leaders Meet with President of Iran

September 26, 2007

“If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18).


Three Church of the Brethren representatives were among some 140 Christian leaders who met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in New York this morning, Sept. 26, at the Tillman Chapel at the Church Center for the United Nations.

The event titled “East West Dialogue: An Interfaith Encounter Between North American Religious Leaders and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran: A Time of Dialogue and Prayerful Reflection Among the Children of Abraham,” was arranged by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and hosted by the UN office of MCC. The Church of the Brethren General Board was one of 11 endorsing agencies.

The Brethren participants were James M. Beckwith, Annual Conference moderator and pastor of Annville (Pa.) Church of the Brethren; Doris Abdullah, the Church of the Brethren representative to the United Nations and a board member of On Earth Peace; and Phil Jones, director of the Brethren Witness/Washington Office.

Leaders from all the major Christian denominations were present, Jones said. Groups that also endorsed the meeting included the Mennonite Church USA, American Friends Service Committee, World Council of Churches, Pax Christi, and Sojourners, among others.

Intentions for the event were “to build bridges of hope and peace with sisters and brothers around the world,” said Stanley J. Noffsinger, general secretary of the General Board. “Our participation as a Living Peace Church will speak clearly to our understanding that it is God’s desire for his creation to live together peacefully.”

The meeting began with the reading of sacred scripture, from the Bible and the Koran, and included a 20-minute address from President Ahmadinejad, responses and questions from a five-member panel, an opportunity for the president to respond, a brief opportunity for questions from the audience, and closing prayers, both Christian and Muslim. Romans 12:18 was read at the beginning of the meeting, and Philippians 4 was read at the closing. Readings from the Koran included Al-Baqarah 285, Al-Nimran 64, and Yunus 31. Opening and closing comments were brought by staff and leaders of MCC and the United Methodist Church.

The panel included Father Drew Christiansen, editor of “America” magazine; Rev. Chris Ferguson, representative to the UN Commission to the Churches on International Affairs; Rev. Dr. Karen Hamilton, executive secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches; Mary Ellen McNish, general secretary of the American Friends Service Committee; and Dr. Glen Stassen, professor of Christian ethics at Fuller Seminary.

“This gathering came on the heels of two other gatherings,” explained Jones. A small group of religious leaders met with President Ahmadinejad during his last visit to the US, and a delegation of US religious leaders traveled to Iran in February, with Mennonite initiative. President Ahmadinejad asked to meet with a larger group of religious leaders during his current visit, Jones said.

Beckwith said the meeting was both a personal opportunity to meet President Ahmadinejad in the spirit of Matthew 18, and an opportunity for the Church of the Brethren to accompany and stand with the Mennonites–who have workers in Iran–as they continue dialogue with the Iranian government.

“It seems to me that truth telling is a critical step in seeking justice and peace,” Beckwith said. “It is important to hear the truths that a person reveals for himself.” The Christian leaders invited President Ahmadinejad to “speak from the heart,” Beckwith said, and the meeting was held in a much less hostile environment than some venues where President Ahmadinejad has spoken in recent days.

President Ahmadinejad was asked honest questions that did not avoid difficult issues, Beckwith said. The president on his side said religious leaders need to cleanse their true faith from materialism and deceit, and called on religious leaders to weed out the root causes of materialism, Beckwith said, adding that the president also reiterated a basic theological point that the day will come when the promised One will appear and God’s will will be established.

Jones noted that President Ahmadinejad gave “a very theological discourse,” on the theme of the narrative of Abrahamic faith, in his 20-minute presentation, and did not address political issues until the question and answer period.

Questions that were asked of the president mirrored many of those that have been asked in other venues, for example touching on his statements about the Holocaust and the state of Israel, Abdullah said. The Brethren group noted one panelist who said she had heard the president speak differently of the Holocaust in private settings than the inflammatory rhetoric he uses publicly, and asked him to speak publicly the way he speaks privately. Another panelist asked him to envision what kind of peace was possible if Iran and the US began to talk again.

However, President Ahmadinejad did not really answer questions, Abdullah said. “He basically stuck to his talking points used in other presentations,” she said. “He did say that any talks (between the US and Iran) would have to be fair and would have to follow international law.” She said the president’s remarks emphasized that the US has a stockpile of nuclear weapons and 100,000 people on Iran’s borders, and that the Iranians are the ones who should feel threatened. He also asked why chemical weapons were used against his people during the time of Iran’s war with Iraq, and reiterated his view that Palestinians are being punished for the Holocaust. He asked the group, “Who told the US we were responsible for the world?” Abdullah added.

“A lot of people may say the religious community comes to this out of some naive perspective,” said Jones. “I come to this from a place of hope, out of humble prayer. Dialogue can lead to understanding.”

Jones said he and a group of US Christian leaders have asked for a meeting with President Bush to talk about the situation with Iran, and to talk about the underlying issues that can lead to war, but they have not yet had that opportunity. They had that opportunity with the president of Iran today, he noted.

“It was important that the Church of the Brethren was at the table,” Jones said. “We came representing a people of nonviolence. We have a responsibility as the people of Christ to make our voice heard.” Jones said the Matthew 18 passage “is imperative to who we are as a faith community. If we can carry that to the political community, everyone benefits.”

For more information contact the Brethren Witness/Washington Office, 337 N. Carolina Ave., SE, Washington, DC 20003; 202-546-3202; 800-785-3246; washington_office_gb@brethren.org.

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