The key to peace

DID you know the President is going to the United States in September? Could you arrange a meeting for him with American religious leaders?" When my friend, Ali Akbar Rezaei, Director of the North and Central America Department of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Iran, made this request on behalf of Iran's President Ahmadinejad, I gulped and said, "Yes, we will try."

By Ed Martin (Issues)

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Published: Thu 10 Jan 2008, 9:06 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:21 PM

This was the first time I had received such a request, since meeting national leaders is not common for the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) staff. MCC - a relief, development and peace agency - traditionally works more at the community level. However, this request came as a result of a series of relationships that developed over 17 years of MCC involvement with Iran and was consistent with MCC's emphasis on promoting understanding and friendship between Iranians and North Americans.

MCC became involved in Iran directly after the massive earthquake of June 1990 in the Gilan and Zanjan provinces. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, it seemed to many that for the American government, Islam was replacing Communism as the key threat and Teheran was replacing Moscow as the enemy. We wanted to demonstrate that MCC would respond to human need irrespective of religious and political factors.

MCC funded the construction of 15 health clinics in earthquake-affected villages and has collaborated with the Iranian Red Crescent Society (IRCS) on both disaster response and refugee relief since then.

In addition, MCC developed an interfaith student exchange programme with an institute in the holy city of Qom, the largest centre for Shia scholarship in the world. Through this programme, American Christians study Islam, Farsi and Persian literature in Qom while Iranian Muslims study western philosophy and Christian theology in Toronto, Canada.

Barely three weeks following Rezaei's daunting request, a group of 47 North American religious leaders representing Islam and several denominations of Christianity met President Ahmadinejad at his hotel on 20 September 2006. This was followed in February 2007 by a meeting in Teheran between a 13-person delegation of American Christian leaders, representing more than half a dozen denominations and church organisations, and religious and political Iranian leaders. And in September 2007, at the time of the UN General Assembly, an ecumenical group of 130 religious leaders met for two hours with President Ahmadinejad in the chapel of the Inter Church Centre across the street from the UN.

I found President Ahmadinejad to be an articulate, intelligent and engaging individual.

He began the meetings with a 15 to 20 minute speech that had considerable religious content. The delegation asked questions about the Iranian nuclear programme, the Holocaust, and relations with the United States.

We came away from the meetings with President Ahmadinejad realising that his positions are more nuanced than often presented in the media. He commented that:

  1. There can be no military solution to the Israeli-Palestinian situation, only a political one.
  2. While the Holocaust took place in Europe, it was the Palestinians who were made to pay for it (through the international sanctioning of the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine).
  3. Iran has no interest in developing atomic weapons, as they would not provide security.
  4. Iran is prepared to enter into direct negotiations with the United States if the United States shows good will.

The nurturing of personal relationships between MCC and Iranian organisations over 17 years resulted in these unexpected exchanges with Ahmedinejad. One never knows where relationships built on mutual respect will lead. To quote a friend, Dr. Seyed Kazem Sajjadpour, the former representative of IPIS at Iran's mission to the UN in New York, "small efforts by ordinary people are a key to peace and justice."

© Common Ground News Service

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