US religious leaders invite Iranian President to dinner

By staff writers
September 19, 2008

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been invited to a dinner put on by American religious leaders during his visit to the United Nations, scheduled for September 25. The event is a dialogue by the Mennonite Central Committee, World Council of Churches, and the Quaker group American Friends Service Committee. Representatives of the Episcopal Church and other mainline denominations plan to attend the dinner.

Representatives of the churches previously visited Iran in February of 2007 and hosted a similar event for Ahmadinejad with the National Council of Churches in September of 2007 at the United Methodist Womens' Building in New York.

It has previously been suggested that Christian leaders might be able to assist a constructive dialogue with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejadís, who is 2006 wrote a letter to US President George W. Bush.

At a conference in Iran in the same year, David W Shenk, a global consultant with Eastern Mennonite Missions, Salunga, Pennsylvania, USA, was able to present to President Ahmadinejad with a copy of his book, A Muslim and a Christian in Dialogue (co-authored by Badru Kateregga).

He also took the opportunity to ask the Iranian head-of-state how Christian leaders might help to facilitate the dialogue Ahmadinejadís May 2006 letter to President Bush invited.

The encounter took place at a meeting on Muslim doctrine organized and hosted by the Bright Future Institute, of Qom, at which 100 international participants (including three American Mennonite scholars) were present.

In his own presentation on 'Messianic hope in biblical eschatology' David Shenk drew on his long acquaintance with Islam in Africa and around the world. He referred to Iranian President Ahmadinejadís letter to US President Bush (8 May, 2006) which named this hope: "Will we be given a role to play in the promised world where justice will become universal and Jesus Christ (PBUH) [peace be upon him, traditional expression of respect] will be present?"

A colleague, Tom Finger, a theologian from Reba Place Church, Evanston, Illinois, outlined the characteristics of human society that is marked by God's gentle reign expressed in the life of the early followers of Jesus' as non-violence, equality and economic sharing.

In May 2006 the Iranian president, caught up in rows about Iran's nuclear ambitions and other confrontations with the United States, took the unprecedented step of writing personally to President George W. Bush.

The White House publicly dismissed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's statement, which included stinging attacks on US foreign policy, and also challenged President Bush's attachment to Christian values by time-and-again asking how his warlike actions squared up with the teachings of Jesus.

The letter also said that liberal democracy was failing and that people across the world were turning to the monotheistic religions. It asked: "Is there no better way to interact with the rest of the world?" and declared: "Undoubtedly through faith in God and the teachings of the prophets, the people will conquer their problems. My question for you is: Do you not want to join them?"

President Bush has not replied to the Iranian president, and some US government representatives dismissed the appeal as a 'publicity stunt'. Right-wing commentators dismissed it as 'deranged'.

Predictatbly, critics have again already spoken out about the dinner. UM Action Executive Director Mark Tooley commented, "These confused prelates will undoubtedly minimize, if not ignore, the evils of the Iranian police state theocracy that brutalizes all who do not share its particular brand of Shiite Islam. They are more worried about what the U.S. might do to Iran than what Iran's deranged president, filled with apocalyptic dreams of destroying the US and Israel, might do to the world."

But some politicians (such as ex-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright), as well as some Christian leaders, said President Ahmadinejadís words should be taken seriously, while continuing to point to the mistreatment of minorities in Iran and the questions the Iranian leader also needs to face.

David Shenkís book A Muslim and a Christian in Dialogue (co-authored by Badru Kateregga) is available online through the Metanoia book service, an Ekklesia partner.

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