Interfaith dialogue 'a model for diplomacy'

By staff writers
March 30, 2007

A church leader who has just returned from a meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has said that interfaith dialogue should be a model for diplomacy in tensions such as those between Western states and Iran.

The comments from the Rev. Dr. Shanta Premawardhana, associate general secretary for interfaith relations at the National Council of Churches (NCC) USA, came as he spoke to nearly 50 leaders from religious non-governmental organizations working on issues at the United Nations.

"Tensions can often be creative," said the NCC's Dr. Premawardhana. While he was speaking directly about work between differing religious traditions he was pointing also to the necessity to remain in dialogue when tense issues develop between nations. "We need to commit to being at the table when things are tense," he said.

Premawardhana was one of 13 Baptist, Episcopal, Quaker, Mennonite, Roman Catholic and United Methodist religious leaders from the U.S. who spent a week in Iran last month meeting with religious and governmental leaders there. The delegation was organized by the Mennonite Central Committee which has had relationships in Iran since it engaged in relief work following an earthquake in 1990.

The delegation earlier this week had called for restoring diplomatic relations between Iran and the U.S. In a statement, the delegation said: "The US and Iran should have the same channels as the United States did with the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War to avoid circumstances where misunderstandings, accidents, or other unanticipated events could lead to a military confrontation."

The statement came following Iran's abduction of British sailors and Royal Marines in either Iraqi or Iranian waters.

The religious delegation was engaging in what is called "track two" diplomacy. It is direct, unofficial and person-to-person diplomacy that often develops relationships among constituent leaders in nations that find themselves at odds.

"It is my hope we see the Iranian religious leaders visit this country to continue the dialogue," said Premawardhana, speaking in a conference room overlooking the U.N. complex on Manhattan's east side. The several story office building, owned by the United Methodist Church, is home to many religions and faith groups.

The NCC is the ecumenical voice of America's Orthodox, Protestant, Anglican, historic African American and traditional peace churches.

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