LAST SUNDAY, 13 U.S. church officials left for Iran to meet with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and build a "bridge of peace" between the two countries.
"I think we can be a bridge that doesn't exist otherwise," United Methodist lobby official Jim Winkler told his denomination's news service. ""We are trying to change U.S. foreign policy from one based on confrontation, domination and intimidation to one of peace and cooperation and diplomacy."
The delegation was organized by the Washington, D.C. lobby offices of the Quakers and the Mennonites and is a follow up of sorts to a meeting that several dozen religious officials, including Winkler, had with Ahmadinejad in New York last October. This time, the group will also meet with former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami, who spoke at the Episcopal Church's National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. in September.
Besides Winkler, the Quakers, and the Mennonites, the delegation to Iran includes representatives from the National Council of Churches, Sojourners (Jim Wallis' evangelical-left group), and Pax Christi, a liberal Catholic group.
"We are making this trip hoping it will encourage both governments to step back from a course that will lead to conflict and suffering," explained a Quaker official, Mary Ellen McNish, general secretary of the American Friends Service Committee. But the delegation acknowledges that Ahmadinejad's unsavory positions may have to be confronted.
Mennonite Central Committee official Ron Flaming fretted to his denominational news service that "there is great risk that our goal to encourage improved relations between the people of Iran and the U.S. will be overshadowed by the controversy surrounding President Ahmadinejad." The "controversy" of course is the Iranian president's frequently expressed desire to destroy Israel and skepticism about the existence of the Holocaust.
The Quaker official, McNish, promised that the group would continue to "engage" Ahmadinejad about the Holocaust, as they had in New York. "These statements make it difficult for Americans to believe that a constructive dialogue is possible," she admitted. The United Methodist official, Winkler, pledged that he would urge the Iranian president to "temper his remarks and change his views on a number of things."
But even more importantly, Winkler and the others want to avert any U.S. military action against Iran. "Obviously we were not successful in heading off a war in Iraq, but I didn't want to say therefore there was no possibility of doing the same for Iran," Winkler told United Methodist News Service. "I feel ever more strongly that we ought to do what we can to stop war from taking place." Winkler had joined an ecumenical delegation that visited Iraqi officials in Baghdad right before the U.S. led military action in 2003. "So where do you have avenues for conversations?" he asked. "I think faith leaders and particularly Christian leaders have an opportunity for that kind of dialogue that doesn't otherwise exist."
"We are making this trip hoping it will encourage both governments to step back from a course that will lead to conflict and suffering," the Quaker official likewise explained. "As Christians we are called to talk with those we are in conflict with and move toward forgiveness and reconciliation. We pray this will open doors to diplomacy." Similarly, the head of the Episcopal Church's Washington lobby office, Maureen Shea, said she is praying that their delegation, of which she is a member, will open "new doors" and "will lead us to peaceful resolution of our differences, not conflict."
Interestingly, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) officials, who participated in the October meeting with Ahmadinejad, are not part of this trip to Iran. At the New York meeting, they had been relatively aggressive in confronting the Iranian president over his Holocaust denial, or at least they reported they had been through their denominational news service. The Presbyterians were stung by Jewish criticism of their divestment policy against Israel, which the Presbyterians revoked last year. Evidently in the interest of restoring their interfaith ties to Jewish groups, and avoiding further widespread criticism, the Presbyterians are taking a pass on this next stage of bridge building with the Iranians.
THE ECUMENICAL DELEGATION is meeting not just with Iranian government officials but also Iranian Evangelical Protestant leaders, the archbishop of the Armenian Orthodox Church in Iran, and Muslim religious leaders in the city of Qom. Evangelicals in Iran have been especially victimized by the Iranian theocracy's restrictions against religions other than the state's preferred brand of Shiite Islam. The denominations represented on the delegation have been almost entirely silent about the Iranian regime's policies of religious persecution.
For that matter, these denominations have been fairly silent about all Iranian human rights abuses. Iran's sponsorship of professional Holocaust deniers, Ahmadinejad's threats against Israel, and Iran's nuclear weapons program have been so high profile that denominational prelates have had to address these concerns. But even in the case of the nuclear program, their critique of Iran has been in the context of universal nuclear disarmament, rather than admitting that nukes controlled by apocalyptic Shiite theocrats represent a uniquely unsettling prospect.
So the almost exclusive focus of this church mission is to forestall U.S. military action against Iran. The church officials plan to meet with members of Congress upon their return. Sojourners official Jeff Carr, who is part of the delegation, recounted on his Sojourners website commentary the story of recently meeting an Iranian woman in America who imploringly asked him: "Do you think the U.S. will attack my country?" He wants to assure her not, of course. And the focus on this ecumenical trip, organized by pacifist churches, is not to defang the Iranian threat, but to influence the ostensibly destabilizing and threatening policies of the United States.
Mark D. Tooley directs the United Methodist committee at the Institute on Religion and Democracy.