While diplomatic and military rhetoric in the exchanges between the United States and Iranian senior politicians remains heated, thirteen Christian leaders from the USA are preparing for a visit to Iran next week (17-25 February 2007) ‚Äì with the aim of building bridges rather than stoking conflict.
The aim of the delegation is to deepen conversation between faith and political leaders. During the week-long trip the group is scheduled to meet with Christian and Muslim religious leaders, women serving in the Iranian parliament, former President Mohammad Khatami and current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The US delegation includes representatives from the Mennonite, Quaker, Episcopal, Catholic and United Methodist churches as well as the National Council of Churches USA, Pax Christi (the international Catholic peace movement) and Sojourners/Call to Renewal in Washington, DC, which has strong evangelical roots.
The trip comes after 45 religious leaders met with Iranian President Ahmadinejad for 75 minutes during his visit to New York on 20 September 2006. Three American Mennonite scholars also participated as guests and contributors at a conference last year on Muslim doctrine organized and hosted by the Bright Future Institute of Qom, Iran.
"Our primary goal is to engage in dialogue with a variety of Iranians," said Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) international programme director, Ron Flaming. The trip is being organized by MCC and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in Philadelphia. MCC is a development, relief and advocacy agency of a number of Mennonite-related historic peace churches.
"We are making this trip hoping it will encourage both governments to step back from a course that will lead to conflict and suffering," said Mary Ellen McNish, general secretary of the American Friends Service Committee.
As the language of war appears to be intensifying on the part of both administrations, and with neither government speaking directly to one another about reconciliation, the group is hoping their visit will make a positive contribution toward ensuring peace between Iran and the United States ‚Äì in spite of the difficulties and disagreements which have to be faced. These include civil and human rights issues on all sides.
"There is great risk that our goal to encourage improved relations between the people of Iran and the USA will be overshadowed by the controversy surrounding President Ahmadinejad," MCC‚Äôs Flaming acknowledged.
Ahmadinejad has been the target of international criticism and revulsion following his controversial statements denying the Holocaust and a recent conference in Tehran supporting that view ‚Äì as well as his apparent denial of the right of the state of Israel to exist. Iran also has an ongoing dispute with the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency.
"As we did at the meeting in New York, we intend to continue to engage the president on his statements regarding the Holocaust," McNish explained. "The Holocaust is a historical fact and one of history's greatest human tragedies."
"These statements make it difficult for Americans to believe that a constructive dialogue is possible," she added.
The delegation will spend most of their time with religious leaders in Tehran, Qom and Isfahan. They will meet with Iranian Evangelical Protestant leaders, the Archbishop of the Armenian Orthodox Church in Iran and Muslim religious leaders in the religious city of Qom.
After the visit the group will then meet with members of the Unite States Congress, informing them of what they heard leaders in Iran saying and examining ways to move toward lessening current tensions.
When several members of the delegation met with members of Congress in October 2006, following the New York meeting with President Ahmadinejad, congressional staff members encouraged them to continue their efforts and visit Iran if possible.
"We are hopeful," Mennonite Central Committee international programme director Ron Flaming declared. "As Christians we are called to talk with those we are in conflict with and move toward forgiveness and reconciliation. We pray this visit will open doors to diplomacy."