US peace churches host dialogue with Iranian president and 100 religious leaders

By staff writers
September 26, 2007

More than 100 religious leaders today (Wednesday) participated in an hour-long, interfaith encounter with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the Church Centre for the United Nations.

The Mennonite Central Committee organized the gathering, which was endorsed by the American Friends Service Committee, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, the Mennonite Church USA, the Mennonite Church Canada, and the Church of the Brethren General Board.

Other endorsers included Sojourners/Call to Renewal, Pax Christi, the World Council of Churches Commission of Churches on International Affairs, and the World Council of Religions for Peace.

Participants in the gathering included individuals from a range of faith traditions, including Catholics, United Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Unitarians.

This is the third in a series of interfaith conversations focused on establishing a dialogue between people of faith in the United States and the people and government of Iran. The discussions began with the Iranian President’s visit to the UN in September of last year when 43 U.S. religious leaders met with him at his hotel. In February, 13 American religious leaders visited Iran, where they met with a variety of governmental, academic, and religious leaders.

This ongoing dialogue emerges out of the concerns of religious leaders in the United States that the escalating political and economic confrontation between the U.S. and Iran could lead to war. They have called on the governments of Iran and the United States to establish direct, face-to-face diplomatic negotiations as one part of an effort to create a path to peace. Known as “peace churches” for their historic witness to nonviolence, Mennonites and Quakers have long been at the forefront of international movements for peace and reconciliation.

Joe Volk, Executive Secretary of the Friends Committee on National Legislation, remarked: "When other venues have been closed, leaders of faith communities serve by demonstrating that alternatives to heated rhetoric and political isolation exist and may prevent war." He added, "I think the peace churches and the Iranian government have demonstrated a way to build a bridge to understanding. This exchange is a very important counterpoint to the other dialogues with the Iranian President during this trip."

“You make peace with those with whom you disagree, not your allies,” said Mary Ellen McNish, General Secretary of the American Friends Service Committee. “Dialogue is not a reward or validation; it is a means to begin the process of reconciliation and pave the way for future constructive relationships.”

After making his opening remarks, President Ahmadinejad responded to questions submitted by the invited guests. Following his comments, five panelists representing Catholic, Evangelical, and Quaker organizations made brief responses. The gathering closed with comments by Ahmadinejad and Burt Lobe, Interim Executive Director of Mennonite Central Committee, who moderated the gathering.

Lobe summarized the meeting saying, "We spoke out of our narratives, out of our traditions, and we acknowledged the particularity that is essential to dialogue with the other.” He went on to say, “This conversation occurred in sacred space, the Interfaith Tillman Chapel at the United Nations; we believe that it is conversation like this, conversation emanating from religious space and out of our particular Christian tradition that carries the voice and call to dialogue."

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