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Issue Date:  October 12, 2007

Peace churches in the breach

The Mennonite Central Committee and the American Friends Service Committee, agencies of two small, traditional peace churches, are to be commended for injecting an intelligent Christian approach to the growing tensions between the United States and Iran. The two agencies organized a religious dialogue with Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at a chapel across the street from the United Nations.

Ahmadinejad is hardly a sympathetic figure. He is a beleaguered populist politician in need of a boost at home, a boost he may have properly calculated was best achieved by visiting the United States, where he would be roundly and loudly vilified.

No doubt he will gain valuable footage back in Tehran as a result of the insults he received in New York, where Columbia University’s president, Lee C. Bollinger, described him as a “petty and cruel dictator.” What citizen wants to see an elected president humiliated on foreign soil?

Yes, he holds repugnant views, not least of which are denial of the Holocaust and a wish for Israel to disappear. He has provoked deep and legitimate suspicions around Iran’s development of nuclear technology. For those reasons, say some, simply meeting with him confers legitimacy he does not deserve.

It is an arguable point. However, the reality is that Ahmadinejad, in his own way, retains his country’s stamp as a duly elected public official, regardless of what we might think of him. It is one of the messy gambles of democracy -- the benefits of which we so ardently preach around the world -- that the winner of a popular vote may be someone we don’t like. It happens here at home too.

Another twist to our tangled relations with Iran arises out of our history there. For while Ahmadinejad might conveniently reimagine another country’s history, he knows too well the story of his own. And that story involves the U.S. overthrow of the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 and the subsequent installation of the shah of Iran, who ruled brutally as a true “petty and cruel dictator” and who was finally deposed in the 1979 revolution that brought religious figures to power. Our own history, in no small way, returns to haunt us in the figure of Ahmadinejad.

So it is understandable that Ahmadinejad and others in Iran might hear the United States’ noble language concerning democracy, freedom and human rights through a thick filter of skepticism.

All of that said, the question remains: How to move on in the present? The Bush administration’s language, posturing and talk about Iran’s development of nuclear weapons all appears eerily similar to the behavior it exhibited leading up to the preemptive bombing and invasion of Iraq. And we know now, too, that the administration ignored or altered information that contradicted its presumptions or got in the way of its goals. Whether military action against Iran is the intent remains to be seen.

Such decisions are made at a level far above and far removed from the few who gathered in the chapel across the street from the United Nations (see story on Page 6). But if there is a place for religious conviction in these matters, it is in stepping into the breach and attempting to model something different from the rhetoric of war. Doubtless, no one in that chapel was foolish enough to think that what happened there would quickly change the course of international relations, or even elicit a change of view on Ahmadinejad’s part.

Those same organizers, however, understand, as one succinctly put it, that talking is better than bombing. They also know that talking in such formats, here and in Iran, leads to connections far beyond Ahmadinejad. Such conversations can lead to others, perhaps with government officials and leading intellectuals. The context in Iran includes a broad range of reformers, many seeking to take the country in a more liberal direction. It is impossible to overstate the value of human-to-human contact in such situations for achieving deeper understanding and for finding common ground.

Iran’s religious landscape, too, is complex and deeply textured, with a variety of political and religious views represented in the ranks of ayatollahs and other religious leaders and teachers. Ahmadinejad is hardly representative of the breadth and depth of those views.

If religion can keep the doors to that larger reality open, then it is incumbent upon religious leaders to do so, even when they risk ire and misunderstanding. They need to keep talking, even, or perhaps especially, in a desperate hope of keeping bombs from falling.

In the case at hand, it should be stated clearly that no principle was compromised, no revisionist history was tolerated, no one was betrayed.

So our gratitude goes out to the Mennonites and the Quakers. If what they did seems foolish to some, it is a foolishness in deep accord with the clearest teachings of our sacred texts, as foolish, perhaps, as the admonishment to love our enemies.

National Catholic Reporter, October 12, 2007

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