“Celebrating the Church of the Brethren’s 300th Anniversary in 2008”
“But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along…” (Matthew 18:18a).
Two Church of the Brethren leaders were among some 300 international religious and political figures, including Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, at a dialogue in New York yesterday evening, Sept. 25. The meeting was held to discuss the role of religion in responding to global challenges and building peace and understanding between societies.
The Brethren leaders who attended were Stan Noffsinger, general secretary of the Church of the Brethren, and Phil Jones, director of the Brethren Witness/Washington Office. The Church of the Brethren was requested to accompany Mennonite leaders and staff of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) to the meeting, as one of the three Historic Peace Churches.
The gathering was one of an ongoing series of meetings that come at the initiative of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). At a meeting with President Ahmadinejad a year ago on Sept. 26, 2007, three Brethren were among some 140 Christian leaders: Annual Conference moderator James Beckwith, Church of the Brethren representative to the UN Doris Abdullah, and Jones. Previous gatherings occurred when a small group of religious leaders met with President Ahmadinejad during a previous visit to the US, and when a delegation of US religious leaders traveled to Iran in Feb. 2007.
The theme of yesterday’s dialogue was “Has not one God created us? The significance of religious contributions to peace.” A series of panelists shared Jewish, Muslim, and Christian perspectives on addressing poverty, injustice, environmental degradation, and war. Speakers included President Ahmadinejad, Kjell Bondevik, former prime minister of Norway, and Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, president of the United Nations General Assembly.
The dialogue, which followed a meal, was sponsored by MCC, American Friends Service Committee, the Quaker United Nations Office, Religions for Peace, and the World Council of Churches-United Nations Liaison Office, in consultation with the Permanent Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the UN.
Arli Klassen, executive director of MCC, gave welcoming remarks on behalf of the sponsoring organizations. She lit an oil lamp as a symbol of faith and invited participants to reflect on peacemaking from their own faith perspectives. “As a Christian, I believe that we are following Jesus Christ’s example and his teaching as we eat together and hold this dialogue despite our many differences,” Klassen said.
Klassen noted several areas of high tension in relations between Iran, the US, and other nations. Addressing President Ahmadinejad, Klassen raised concerns about his statements on the Holocaust and Israel, Iran’s nuclear program, and religious freedom in Iran. “We ask you to find a way within your own country to allow for religious diversity, and to allow people to make their own choices as to which religion they will follow,” Klassen said.
Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, a leader in the Jewish Renewal movement, spoke about Jewish traditions of peacemaking and nonviolence, and drew upon her work for reconciliation between Muslims and Jews and Palestinians and Israelis. She also spoke about the significance of mourning the deaths of all victims of war, including the millions of people killed in the Holocaust, World War II, and wars in Iran and Iraq. “Because of the Holocaust, I learned from the rabbis who ordained and guide me, to be active in preventing further suffering of all human beings as a primary religious call to action,” Gottlieb said.
Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, spoke about Islamic principles for alleviating poverty, caring for the environment, and working for peace and justice. He encouraged his interreligious audience to cooperate more closely toward these goals. “Has not God created us?” Awad said. “Yes–and he wants us to work together.”
Although Klassen, Bondevik, and others raised concerns about religious freedoms and human rights in Iran, President Ahmadinejad did not address these issues directly. He spoke at length about theological issues, such as monotheism, justice, and commonalities among religions. “All divine prophets have spoken of one truth,” the president said. “The religion of Islam is the same as that offered by Moses.”
President Ahmadinejad spoke in broad terms about “challenges facing the human community,” including poverty, declining morality, and a lack of religion in public life. He decried the humanitarian costs of wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon, and spoke extensively about the hardships suffered by Palestinians. He criticized nations such as the United States for maintaining nuclear weapons and did not deviate from his previous statements that Iran’s nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.
“We were guests of the Mennonites,” Noffsinger emphasized in a telephone interview today, following a debriefing meeting for the Mennonite delegation. “It was delightful to sit with about 20 people of member churches of the MCC and their staff.” At this morning’s debriefing, Noffsinger reported that the group wanted to hear Brethren responses to the event. It is that same sense of collaboration that Mennonites are using in their ongoing attempts at dialogue with the people of Iran, he added. “It’s good and it’s healthy,” Noffsinger said.
A couple hundred protesters demonstrated across the street during the meeting with Ahmadinejad, Noffsinger said. The protesters, he felt, were identifying the peace churches as “irrelevant to American culture. That’s been abrasive and difficult to hear,” he said.
During the meeting with Ahmadinejad, the American religious leaders spoke “about nuclear armaments and the Holocaust,” Noffsinger said. These concerns “were all raised and clearly articulated multiple times. It was very open speech.”
Other denominations that are members of the World Council of Churches have received criticism of the WCC sponsorship of the meeting, Noffsinger said, and he himself has received questions about why the Brethren participated. Those questions “missed the point,” he said. “The dialogue is what really matters.”
To the question, are you going? Noffsinger said he has responded, “Of course we’re going to be there.”
“To be at that table, this is what it means to be a peace church,” he said. “We’re always called by Jesus’ command to love neighbors as ourselves. The church also has position papers on nuclear weapons, war, international relationships. We have a statement on peacemaking, and we will take every avenue of nonviolent resolution. These are reasons we go to the table, that’s why we risk it. Our faith compels us.”
The Church of the Brethren has consistently engaged in conversation and relationship building with peoples identified as political enemies, in obedience to the command of Jesus to “love your enemies” (Mt. 5:44, Lk. 6:27). For example, during the Cold War the Church of the Brethren hosted delegations of Russian representatives from the Russian Orthodox Church, at a time when those visits also were met by hostile groups of protesters.
“There are going to be other places around the world where we are going to be called to be in the middle of it, and that’s where we ought to be” as Brethren, Noffsinger said. “It’s where we’ve always been.”
“It was with a delicate balance of faith and trust that I attended,” Jones said today as he reported on the meeting. He noted that this is the fourth attempt at open and honest conversation with President Ahmadinejad. “Have I seen great progress in our understanding?” he asked. “Certainly not, it takes time to develop that safe place where real dialogue can occur. But truths have been told and lies have been challenged.”
“We must meet and greet and love all of our sisters and brothers, not just those we are comfortable with,” Jones said. “Many within our tradition, Christian and Brethren, have challenged this attempt at loving dialogue. We do not always choose our enemies, we do not always choose those we love. In faith and trust we simply live the greatest commandment of all, to the best of our ability.”
For more information, contact the Brethren Witness/Washington Office at firstname.lastname@example.org or 800-785-3246.
(Sections of this report came from a Mennonite Central Committee press release.)
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