Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Cracking Open the Diplomatic Door

I don't want to be too optimistic about this, but if today's news is any indication of a small cracking open of a diplomatic door, I am glad. Iran's National Security Sectretary Ali Larijani said that Iran will participate in regional talks on Iraq.

Here's an excerpt from the New York Times article:

WASHINGTON, Feb. 27 — American officials said Tuesday that they had agreed to hold the highest-level contact with the Iranian authorities in more than two years as part of an international meeting on Iraq.

The discussions, scheduled for the next two months, are expected to include Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her Iranian and Syrian counterparts.

The announcement, first made in Baghdad and confirmed by Ms. Rice, that the United States would take part in two sets of meetings among Iraq and its neighbors, including Syria and Iran, is a shift in President Bush’s avoidance of high-level contacts with the governments in Damascus and, especially, Tehran.

Critics of the administration have long said that it should do more to engage its regional rivals on a host of issues, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Lebanon. That was the position of the Iraq Study Group, the high level commission that last year urged direct, unconditional talks that would include Iran and Syria.

While the newly scheduled meetings may not include direct negotiations between the United States and Iran, and are to focus strictly on stabilizing Iraq rather than other disputes, they could crack open a door to a diplomatic channel.

Click here for more....

And this, with more context from Iran, is from the Stratfor Morning Intelligence Brief...

Geopolitical Diary: The Lead-up to Public U.S.-Iranian Negotiations

Three noteworthy events took place on Tuesday that have significant implications for U.S.-Iranian dealings over Iraq.

First, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei announced his appointments to the Expediency Council (EC) -- the country's highest political arbitration body, led by Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Second, Rafsanjani issued a statement warning his country not to provoke the United States. He added that, at a great financial cost to itself, Washington invaded Afghanistan and Iraq and achieved nothing but serving Tehran's interests, and "therefore they are angry. So we must be more alert. They are like a wounded tiger, and we must not ignore this."

Third, the Bush administration announced it will send representatives to Baghdad in late March and early April to attend two international conferences in which Iran also will participate. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States hopes Iran will take advantage of the opportunity "to work for peace and stability in the region." Furthermore, a State Department spokesman hinted that U.S. officials could hold bilateral talks with the Iranians on the sidelines of the conferences.

Stratfor repeatedly has written about U.S.-Iranian back-channel dealings over Iraq, as well as the need for both sides to bring these communications into the public realm. While direct public engagement would not damage Iran's clerical regime much on the domestic front, such negotiations certainly pose a significant quandary for the Bush administration. Moreover, the United States has said many times that Iran must verifiably suspend its nuclear enrichment before such negotiations can take place.

However, as the security situation in Iraq continues to worsen -- an immediate concern for the United States and a long-term worry for Iran -- the United States has been forced to find alternative means of talking to the Iranians. Instead of jumping into a bilateral engagement, Washington has decided to begin the process in a multilateral setting, which could pave the way for direct dealings between the two foes. This also allows the United States to allay the concerns of its Arab allies, who are fearful that U.S.-Iranian accommodations could hurt their interests.

Tehran has begun preparing for the coming public negotiations with Washington. Rafsanjani's remarks are part of the efforts of his pragmatic conservative faction to create a consensus within the regime on how to deal with the United States. Rafsanjani, who has been a player in Iran in various key capacities since the founding of the republic, is very familiar with U.S. behavior and is therefore trying to get the ultraconservative elements within the regime to realize that they are overplaying their hand and risking the gains Iran has made thus far.

Another key development in Iran is Khamenei's appointments. The EC was created by a constitutional amendment in 1988 in order to resolve differences between parliament and the Guardians Council (a clerical institution with the power of legislative oversight that also is charged with vetting candidates for public office). In addition, the EC was to advise the supreme leader. Following the domination of the executive and legislative branches by ultraconservatives, Khamenei gave Rafsanjani the power to oversee all three branches of the government and to implement a 20-year plan drafted by the EC.

Khamenei's appointments were both an effort to consolidate the hold of pragmatic conservatives like Rafsanjani and an attempt to get both factions on the same page. To that end, Khamenei appointed the current heads of the three branches of government, as well as the Guardians Council jurists, to the EC. He also mandated that every minister must attend EC meetings when the agenda contains items related to that Cabinet member's portfolio. Additionally, in an effort to make sure parliament is represented, he has required that the heads of parliamentary committees attend the meetings.

It appears that, in their own ways, both the United States and Iran are preparing for the much-awaited public negotiations over Iraq. However, as we have seen in the past, a lot can go wrong before the actual meetings take place -- and even once they begin, an accommodation over Iraq is far from assured.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Standing in the Gap: Religious Leaders Between Two Narratives

In the sacred city of Qom, we ran into a group of Iraqi women who had travelled about 12 hours by bus to worship at the shrine there. When they realized that we were Americans they became very agitated and angry and shouted at us to go home. We later reflected on the deep pain that the war in Iraq has caused them.

I've begun to research the questions that were raised in our visits with Iranian religious and political leaders. I will post bits and pieces of this information as I uncover them.
The delegation found themselves "Standing in the Gap" between two narratives an expression found in the following biblical text.

"And I sought for a man among them, that should make up the hedge, and stand in the gap before me for the land..." Ezekiel 22:30

1. Two narratives: 1953 and 1979.

Jeff Carr (Sojourners/Call to Renewal) told us how as a 15 year old in 1979, he vividly remembers some 454 days of daily television pictures of the hostages in the US embassy in Tehran. Since then, our impression of Iranians has been so colored by those images that it is difficult to think differently about them.

Iranians begin their narrative much earlier, in 1953, when in the first ever CIA initiated coup toppled a foreign government.

Stephen Kinzer's book, All the Shahís Men, An American Coup And The Roots of Middle East Terror analyzes the events leading up to it and its repercussions.

Also, Prof. Ervand Abrahamian, Middle East and Iran Expert at Baruch College, City University of New York wrote Khomeinism: Essays on the Islamic Republic (University of California Press, 1993).
Amy Goodman interviewed both these authors on her Democracy Now program on the 50 the anniversary (August 26, 2003) of the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mossadegh. This is fully worth reading.
I have not yet read the books, but I am eager to do so. The Democracy Now interview is fully worth reading.

2. US support for Saddam Hussein during the Iran/Iraq war

Stephen R. Shalom, professor of political science at William Patterson University in Wayne, NJ has a good article in the Iran Chamber Society website that's worth reading: "The United States and Iran-Iraq War 1980-1988"

Iranians we spoke to held resentment and anger towards the US role in supporting Saddam Hussein against Iran. Many we spoke to are glad that the Saddam regime is no more. But spoke vehemently against US double standards.

More later....

Media Links

The main website for the Iran Delegation is: Check here for news stories, pictures, video, bios of delegation members, background materials etc.

Click here for a Video interview with Mary Ellen McNish, General Secretary, American Friends Service Committee:

Here are some media links to our delegation's visit to Iran. I will keep updating this list as new media stories come in.

1. Articles on the delegation:

2. On quilts, lamps and Jim Winkler

3. On the Interfaith Dialogue Event at the Organization of Culture and Islamic Relations:

4. A Tehran Times interview with delegation leaders Ron Flaming and Mary Ellen McNish:

5. Iran Diary, an article by Mark Beach, Media Director, Mennonite Central Committee:

6. Upon the delegation's return:

Monday, February 26, 2007

Iran Delegation Press Conference

This morning at 9:00 a.m. several members of the delegation met with the members of the Washington press corps at the National Press Club.

The delegation met with President Ahmadinejad on Saturday night from 8:00 to 10:30 p.m.

On Monday morning, the delegation issued the following statement.

U.S. Religious Delegation Finds Hope in Iran
February 25, 2007

As Christian leaders from the United States, we traveled to the Islamic Republic of Iran at this time of increased tension believing that it is possible to build bridges of understanding between our two countries. We believe military action is not the answer, and that God calls us to just and peaceful relationships within the global community.

We are a diverse group of Christian leaders from United Methodist, Episcopal, Catholic, Baptist, Evangelical, Quaker, and Mennonite traditions. The Mennonites have 17 years of on the ground experience in Iran. We were warmly welcomed by the Iranian people, and our time in Iran convinced us that religious leaders from both countries can help pave the way for mutual respect and peaceful relations between our nations.

During our visit we met with Muslim and Christian leaders, government officials, and other Iranian people.

Our final day included a meeting with former President Khatami and current President Ahmadinejad. The meeting with President Ahmadinejad was the first time an American delegation had met in Iran with an Iranian president since the Islamic revolution in 1979. The meeting lasted two-and-a-half hours and covered a range of topics, including the role of religion in transforming conflict, Iraq, nuclear proliferation, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

What the delegation found most encouraging from the meeting with President Ahmadinejad was a clear declaration from him that Iran has no intention to acquire or use nuclear weapons, as well as a statement that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can only be solved through political, not military means. He said, “I have no reservation about conducting talks with American officials if we see some goodwill.”

We believe it is possible for further dialogue and that there can be a new day in U.S. – Iranian relations. The Iranian government has already built a bridge toward the American people by inviting our delegation to come to Iran. We ask the U.S. government to welcome a similar delegation of Iranian religious leaders to the United States.

As additional steps in building bridges between our nations, we call upon both the U.S. and Iranian governments to:

* immediately engage in direct, face-to-face talks;
* cease using language that defines the other using “enemy” images; and
* promote more people-to-people exchanges including religious leaders, members of Parliament/Congress, and civil society.

As people of faith, we are committed to working toward these and other confidence building measures, which we hope will move our two nations from the precipice of war to a more just and peaceful relationship.

[list of delegation on reverse side]

J. Daryl Byler
Director, Mennonite Central Committee's Washington Office

Jeff Carr
Chief Operating Officer, Sojourners/Call to Renewal

Ron Flaming
Director of International Programs, Mennonite Central Committee.

Edward Martin
Director of Mennonite Central Committee’s Central and Southern Asia Program

Jonathan Evans
Special Representative for Iran at the American Friends Service Committee (Quakers)

Mary Ellen McNish
General Secretary, American Friends Service Committee (Quakers)

Shanta Premawardhana
Associate General Secretary of the National Council of Churches USA for Interfaith Relations and Director of the NCC Interfaith Relations Commission

Maureen Shea
Director of Government Relations, The Episcopal Church.

Patricia Shelly
Executive Board of Mennonite Church USA.

Geraldine Sicola
Associate General Secretary for International Programs,
American Friends Service Committee (Quakers)

David Robinson
Executive Director of Pax Christi USA

Joe Volk
Executive Secretary, Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL)

James Winkler
General Secretary of the General Board of Church & Society (GBCS)
The United Methodist Church

On Monday, the National Council of Churches issued the following press release:

[NCC News] Iran president open to talks with U.S., religious leaders told

Washington, D.C., February 26, 2007--The president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, told a delegation of American religious leaders visiting Tehran last Saturday that he is willing to engage in talks with the United States government.

"I have no reservation about conducting talks with American officials if we see some good will," President Ahmadinejad was quoted as saying in a statement by a religious delegation just back from Iran. It was issued today at a news conference at the National Press Club here.

The delegation's statement (complete text below) called for immediate direct talks between the U.S. and Iran, an immediate halt to the use of enemy images in each other's rhetoric, and increasing the number of people-to-people delegations between the two countries at several levels.

"What the delegation found most encouraging from the meeting with President Ahmadinejad," said the statement, "was a clear declaration from him of no intention to acquire or use nuclear weapons, as well as a statement that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can only be solved through political not military means."

"President Ahmadinejad used the same train analogy quoted in the media about not stopping Iran's nuclear program," said the Rev. Dr. Shanta Premawardhana, associate general secretary for interfaith relations at the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA (NCC), an analogy that brought him a storm of criticism from within Iran, including from his conservative base and senior religious leaders. “Yet, Ahmadinejad insists that Iran is not developing a nuclear weapon. Indeed, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei under whose authority the nuclear program rests has issued a fatwa (edict) that making or using nuclear weapons goes against Islamic teaching.” “Ahmadinejad comes across as a very religious man,” said Premawardhana, “He is very unlikely to go against a religious edict.”

The NCC's Premawardhana was among the 13-member delegation representing the Mennonite, Quaker, Episcopal, Roman Catholic, Baptist and United Methodist churches. They spent six days in Iran talking with religious leaders, government officials and general citizens.

"We believe it is possible for further dialogue and that there can be a new day in U.S.-Iranian relations," said their statement. But at a meeting last Tuesday there was at least one Iranian religious leader who desired to move further.

"We need to go beyond dialogue and establish tangible results," said Iranian Ayatollah Dr. Monhaghegh Damad of Shahid Behesti University in Tehran. "We need to hold dialogue to eliminate ambiguities and misunderstandings between religions that emerge once in a while and work through them to establish peace."

"Peace is the key teaching of Christianity and Islam and this will be realized in our lives," said Archbishop Sebouh Sarkissian of the Armenian Orthodox church in Iran at the Tuesday meeting. "This is the product of dialogue."

"As people of faith, we are committed to working towards these and other confidence building measures, which we hope will move our two nations from the precipice of war to a more just and peaceful relationship," concluded the statement.

The NCC is the ecumenical voice of America's Orthodox, Protestant, Anglican, historic African American and traditional peace churches. These 35 communions have 45 million faithful members in 100,000 congregations in all 50 states.
NCC News contact: Dan Webster, 212.870.2252, .
Latest NCC News at

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Return from Tehran

We have just returned from Tehran having had important meetings with president Ahmadinejad and former president Khatami. Its been an important week. Tomorrow (Monday) morning we will hold a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington DC. I will post our statement and other details of the press conference after that.

For now, let me continue from where I stopped.

Ali Akbar Rezaei (left) Deputy for North and Central America at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who initiated the idea and coordinated our trip is a graduate of the Summer Peacebuilding Institute at the Eastern Mennonite University, with Dr. Jalili (right) Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs for Europe and North America.

On Wednesday, we met with Dr. Jalili, the Deputy Foreign Minister of Iran who gave us an approximately 40 minute presentation on the Iranian perspective on the current crisis. He made some significant points.

The following are my reflections on his main points.

1. There are two narratives that are deeply etched in the psyches of the Iranian People and US Americans.

The Iranian narrative of its relationship with the US begins almost 54 years ago in 1953 when a coup initiated by the US government toppled the legitimate government of Iran and installed the Shah. This led to 25 years of dictatorship.

The US narrative begins in 1979 when 54 US diplomats were taken hostage at the American Embassy and held for over a year. Our delegation was the first group of Americans who had a meeting with senior government officials such as Dr. Jalili and a sitting Iranian president in 28 years.

For Iranians 1979 is a great celebration -- the toppling of a dictator and the start of the Islamic revolution and the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran. This according to Dr. Jalili is a grassroots government and a democratic one.

2. In the 1980s the US supported Saddam Hussein in the eight year war of Iraq against Iran but during that time there was not one UN resolution against Saddam. Dr. Jalili says that WMDs -- chemical weapons -- were used by Saddam against Iranian citizens but at the time Donald Rumsfeldt supported Saddam. Yet, Iran supported the political process in Iraq after Saddam was defeated, including its establishment of the constitution.

3. Iran supports human rights and justice for Palestine. They are a people who need to come back to their land. The president (Ahmadinejad) supports having a plebiscite so that people of the area can determine their own destiny, said Dr. Jalili. However, in my view, this is not an accptable position. Such a process will necessarily undermine the existence of Israel. I support a non-violent political solution. But it requires a deeper level of diplomacy to determine how a two state solution of peace and security be established.

4. Iran has a 20 year economic plan, said Dr. Jalili. For this we need 20,000 mega watts of nuclear power, he said. Iran had negotiated a nuclear deal during the Shah's time. But that is not taken into account now, he said. President Ahmadinejad spoke at the UN that nuclear weapons should be eliminated. But Prime Minister Olmert of Israel admitted to Israel's possession of nuclear weapons. There were no repercussions for that, he said.

Iran has the right to develop nuclear energy according to the NPT (Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty). We are not going to develop nuclear weapons (It is against Islam), he said. But these things can be worked out through dialogue, he said.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Interfaith Dialogue Event in Tehran

I am sorry to say that the internet facility in our hotel is very limited. That, in addition to our hectic schedule it is difficult to post as frequently as I like. Which also means that stories about this trip will keep coming even after we return to the US.

L to R: Ron Flaming, the leader of our delegation; Ayatollah Mohammad Araqi, president of the Organization of Culture and Islamic Relations, our sponsor; and Archbishop Sebu Sarkissian of the Armenian Orthodox Church at the Interfaith Dialogue Event.

At the Interfaith Dialogue Event I spoke on behalf of Christians. On my left is Jim Winkler (United Methodist Church)

Ayatollah Araqi the president of the Organization began by welcoming us and laying out what he perceives to be the key issues. The Ayatollah is a leader in interfaith relations. I had previsouly participated with him in interfaith dialogue events organized by the World Council of Churches. Here are his key points.

1. Man (sic) by nature is an advocate of peace. Hence no country should claim to be superior to others.
2. The nations are tired of war and bloodshed for the power-mongers. The displacement of innocent people, the destruction of their houses, and shedding the blood of their children all indicate that we should move towards establishment of peace.
3. The youth today are eager to receive guidelines of th divine religoins. Hence we as religious leaders must play our roles at this stage, otherwise future generations will not forgive us.

From the Muslim side, Dr. Vaziri asked what is the birthplace of peace? Its the creation, he said, and we must do all we can to protect creation or we will not have peace.

Dr. Mohaqqeq Dawad gave an impassioned plea for dialogue. That the only way to save the world form self destruction, he said.

From the Christian side, Dr. Patty Shelly gave a Christian exegetical review of key scriptures that have to do with interfaith peace building.

I spoke of how the dialogue table must move from "tea and sympathy" to the place of tension, to the place of solidarity and work ourselves jointly towards justice.

The following are two press releases:

The delegation met with Ayatollah Imami Keshani

Following the meeting the Ayatollah shook hands with me.

Delegation meets Archbishop and Ayatollah in Iran

February 19, 2007

TEHRAN, Iran -- On the first day after their arrival in Iran, a delegation of U.S. religious leaders met separately with Tehran Friday prayer leader Mohammad Emami Kashani and the Archbishop of the Armenian Orthodox Church in Tehran.

In introductory remarks to both leaders, delegation co-leader Ron Flaming of the Mennonite Central Committee explained that the delegation of Christian leaders feels a calling to visit Iran at a time of great tension between the two nations. He made clear that the delegation believes that this tension is not what God intended.

Flaming said the delegation came to meet with the Iranians to engage in dialogue and hear suggestions on how people in Iran and the U.S. can help reduce the tension.

In an effort to help the group understand the relationship of minorities in Iran, Archbishop Sebu Sarkissian said that although the Armenians living in Iran are a minority faith group, they view themselves as full Iranians. In fact, he added, the Armenian church in Iran is an indigenous community.

He said that religious leaders in the U.S. and Iran have to build trust between each other. “This is not an easy task,” he said.

The Ayatollah began his address to the delegation by revealing that the Holy Kor’an says Christianity is mentioned as the closest religion to Islam. He explained that the two religions are not in conflict and that both want peace, equality and justice.

In a question and answer period with the delegates, the Ayatollah confirmed that the Grand Ayatollahs of Iran have issued a “fatwa” against the development and use of nuclear weapons and all weapons of mass destruction. He said it is forbidden in Islam.

When asked why harsh language is used against the United States in the Friday prayers that he sometimes leads--prayers broadcast across the country-- he replied “What you mention is not against the American people. Our objection is to statements of the American government.”

On his way to evening prayers, the Imam's final statement to the delegation was, “Please consider Iran as your second home for Americans.”

The 13-member U.S. group represents church members from the Mennonite, Quaker, Episcopal, Catholic and United Methodist churches. The group is spending one-week in Iran meeting with religious and political leaders in the country.

More on the dialogue session in the following press release

U.S. and Iranian religious leaders discuss peace

February 20, 2007

TEHRAN, Iran – Religious leaders from the U.S. and Iran met here today to discuss the importance of faith groups finding common ground in peacemaking, particularly in light of the growing political tensions between the U.S. and Iran.

The three-hour meeting--called Quest for Truth--was held in Tehran and sponsored by the Islamic Culture and Religion Organization. It was one of a weeklong series of meetings a delegation of U.S. religious leaders is holding with Iranian religious leaders--both Christian and Muslim--as well as political leaders in Iran.

The delegation arrived early Monday, Feb. 19 and has since met with the Archbishop of the Armenian Church in Iran and the Tehran-based Ayatollah who leads Friday prayers in Tehran and is a member of the Iranian Council of Experts.

The group is expected to meet with others Iranian leaders during the next few days, including Iranian President Ahmadinejad. Their goal is to work with religious leaders in the U.S. and Iran to help ease tensions.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the presentations offered by religious leaders and scholars on both sides agreed that although dialogue is important, now is the time for action.

“We need to go beyond dialogue and establish tangible results,” said Iranian Ayatollah Dr. Monhaghegh Damad of Shahid Behesti University in Tehran. “We need to hold dialogue to eliminate ambiguities and misunderstandings between religions that emerge once in a while and work through them to establish peace.”

“Interfaith dialogue strengthens our own theology,” said Rev. Dr. Shanta Premawardhana of the National Council of Churches and a member of the U.S. delegation. “This is a new paradigm that has arrived out of many years of engaging in dialogue.”

“Peace is the key teaching of Christianity and Islam and this will be realized in our lives,” said Archbishop Sabu Sarkission of the Armenia Orthodox church in Iran. “This is the product of dialogue."

The 13-member U.S. religious leaders group represents church members from the Mennonite, Quaker, Episcopal, Catholic and United Methodist churches.

Monday, February 19, 2007

From Tehran

The delegation haivng just arrived, at the Tehran Airport
The ladies needed to wear veils before disembarking from the plane -- that's the law!

This is a quick narrative. Later, I will explore in greater detail some of the issues raised and their impact on our purpose of creating opportunities for dialogue.

We arrived in Tehran at 2 a.m. on Monday, having spent 10 hours or so at Frankfurt. The purpose of that was to meet with the Iranian ambassador to the UN in Geneva who flew in just to meet with us. Educated at George Washington University as a political scientist, he was extremely familiar with American political scene. This was an excellent introduction to what is going on in Iran from someone who despite being an Iranian diplomat spoke very frankly in language with which we are very familiar.

We were warmly welcomed in Tehran by the Iranian Foreign Ministry. In that initial welcome it was clear to us that the news media had reported on our arrival and a sense of expectation had been created. we learned that some think of Americans as "enemies." Not surprising, with all the rhetoric coming out of Washington! We also learned that one news report had depicted us as "missionaries." This means that for fear of who we might evangelize, we'll be watched, for who we will meet what we will say, and perhaps even what we will write on our blogs!
Monday afternoon we had two meetings. The first was with the Armenian Orthodox Archbishop Sarkassian. I greeted him on behalf his colleague, Archbishop Vicken Aykazian, the next president of the NCC. He helped us understand better the issues faced by the Armenian church and the Christian community in Iran. He insisted that the NCC bring another delegation that included Orthodox (we explained that Archbishop Vicken was invited to go, but couldn't)

I presented a quilt and an oil lamp to Archbishop Sarkissian on behalf of the delegation.
We will encourage our churches to light oil lamps as a sign of solidarity with the people of Iran.

Next we visited Ayatollah Imami Keshani and his 120 year old seminary. The seminary library has an entire section devoted to ancient handwritten books. They showed us a hand written Qur'an from the 10th century. The Aytollah, who until recently used to be a member of the Supreme Council (a council of top Iranian clerics who can and do veto any legislation and seems to have greater powers than our Supreme Court). An older and amible man spoke softly but forcefully on many questions of tension between our nations. One of his answers included a passionate defence of Friday sermons in which sometimes imams say things that inflame passions of the congregants. I came away thinking about what more we need to do to keep our own Christian ayatollah's in check. More on such themes and pictures later.

Do keep us in your prayer. Expectations of our delegation are high in Iran -- that's not a very good thing as far as I am concerned. And the next days are going to be very hectic.
For more information on the delegation go to:

Friday, February 16, 2007

Christian Peace Delegation Leaves for Iran Saturday

Tomorrow (Saturday) I will leave for Iran with a delegation of Christian leaders. The 13 member delegation organized by the Mennonite Central Committee and the American Friends Service Committee includes representatives from Mennonite, Quaker, Episcopal, United Methodist, Baptist and Roman Catholic traditions. I will represent the National Council of Churches’ member denominations.

At a time when war drums are beating indicating failed diplomacy between our government and the government of Iran , we feel that it is imperative for US religious leaders to meet and begin a dialogue with a variety of Iranian people. We expect to meet with Christian and Muslim leaders, women parliamentarians, the former president Khatemi and president Ahmedinejad.

The group is of one mind about its condemnation of president Ahmednejad’s denial of the holocaust and his remarks about Israel . We are well prepared to raise these difficult questions in our conversation with him. Some have questioned the wisdom of meeting with the president, since there is the danger that he might use it as a means to legitimize his views and bolster his image. While acknowledging this risk, I want to assure everyone that we are very carefully preparing to minimize that risk. We go with the confidence that dialogue with those whom we disagree and indeed even with our enemies, is always preferable to war.

I want to also assure my Christian colleagues who have expressed concern about our relations with our Jewish colleagues that I have personally talked to several key Jewish colleagues to give them a “heads up” and offer them the above mentioned assurances.

For me, the key conversations are with the religious leaders. As you know, religious leaders wield a great deal of power: having significant public following and moral authority. You may be aware that recently there has been unusual public criticism of the president by Iranian Muslim leaders. Opening channels of communication between Iranian and US religious leaders I think is critical for this time.

Shortly after our return, we will to make Capitol Hill visits to offer our perspectives to congresspersons.

I will post regular updates whenever I have an opportunity to do so. For your information, the NCC statement on our delegation is below.

The delegation has its own website on which relevant documents, press briefings, and regular updates will be posted.

Click here:

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Community Organizing Helps Strengthen Synagogues

This week I participated with Jewish Congregation Based Community Organizing (CBCO)conference in Santa Clara, California. The event organized by Jewish Funds for Jusctice brought over 300 rabbis and synagogue leaders who participate in Community Organizing. It was great to see old friends from my community organizing days in Chicago and make many new ones including those in the CBCO foundation community.

CBCOs in the United States are largely Christian. How can they adjust to be welcoming to Jews and Muslims? How can Jews and Muslims better organize themselves to enter with greater power in to those local organizations? How can we bring the Christian clergy caucuses together to engage with their Jewish colleagues to think together and more deeply about the theology of Community Organizing? Many question -- the answers to which I will begin to explore with other colleagues.

Here's an article about the event from JTA, a global news service of the Jewish people, which includes a description of a local action they participate in, on Monday night.

Organizing for social justice helpscongregations strengthen themselves
By Sue Fishkoff February 13, 2007

Rabbi Camille Angel, right, talks with others at the
Jewish Funds for Justice conference in Santa Clara, Calif., Feb. 11.

LOS GATOS, Calif. (JTA) — Three state Assembly members and a lone county supervisor were no match this week for 500 Jews demanding more money for health care.

"We meet tonight to ensure health-care coverage for all county residents," said Rabbi Joel Fleekop of Congregation Shir Hadash, a local congregation and host of the Feb. 12 event in this Silicon Valley town.

Invoking Judaism’s exhortation "to care for the widow and the orphan," Fleekop and a dozen other speakers presented universal health care as a God-given right. If funding is not forthcoming, they warned the four elected officials, more than 300,000 children in California will be uninsured by 2012.

"As people of faith, we won’t stand for it," one speaker declared.

It was hardly a fair fight. But that’s how it usually goes at such events, whispered Simon Greer, president of Jewish Funds for Justice, which had bused in more than 200 participants for the meeting from its national conference, "Holy Congregations, Just Communities," in nearby Santa Clara.

It’s not surprising to see Jews heavily represented among activists for health care, or any other social, political or environmental cause.

But these people Monday night were doing it as congregations, following a model of congregation-based community organizing put forward by Jewish Funds for Justice five years ago.

By joining with like-minded churches and civic groups in large, regional interfaith networks, Greer said, these synagogues are multiplying their strength and enhancing their effectiveness.
Participants from around the country said they are helping to transform their congregations into more caring, connected communities.

On the social action front, they are moving beyond once-a-year "mitzvah days" to become effective agents for social change in housing, education, crime prevention and health care. They are helping to push through laws and policies at local and state levels that they never could have alone.

"Hundreds of thousands of people have access to health care because of this work," Greer said.
The model is proving to be popular. In 2002, when the Jewish Funds initiative began, 20 synagogues signed on. Today that number has climbed to 70. Staffers hope it will move past 100 by the end of the year.

Nearly 300 Jewish clergy, rabbinical students and lay leaders, representing 63 of those 70 congregations, spent three days this week at the group’s second national gathering devoted to the issue.

Forty-four rabbinical students, from Reform to Orthodox, have taken the group’s semester-long course in leadership development and community organizing. It is required of all second-year students at the modern Orthodox seminary Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in New York.
Synagogues engaged in the work are reporting success.

A congregation near Chicago, working in concert with other faith-based groups, shut down one of its neighborhood’s main suppliers of guns.

Another congregation in Columbus, Ohio, secured $1 million to expand community health-care centers to serve an additional 3,500 people.

A third, in northern California, convinced county officials to set aside $18 million for affordable housing. And a fourth, in a Maryland town, doubled the number of taxis so local seniors could get around.

There are bigger victories as well. Rabbi Jonah Pesner spearheaded a successful organizing initiative at Temple Israel in Boston before being hired by the Reform movement to head its national "Just Congregations" project. He said the statewide health-care reform in Massachusetts passed last March because of the efforts of the 55 churches, synagogues and civic groups in the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization.

Beyond the tangible victories, those involved in this work say it has transformed their synagogues into communities where the people know and care about each other. In making the world a little better, they are making their congregations more warm, friendly and caring.
"My relationships with people are deeper, stronger," said Rick Zinman of Temple Beth El in Aptos, Calif.

Zinman said that after 18 years as a synagogue member, he only began to consider the shul his home when he became involved in its community organizing project two years ago.

The process itself is important, say participants. Instead of having the rabbi or social action committee decide which projects to work on, congregants sit down with each other to talk about who they are, what they care about and why. Each congregation sifts through its members’ stories to hone in on the issues they want to focus on.

With this model, Greer said, "Not only do you have greater effect on the issues, you have a synagogue where people share their concerns and hopes. It’s a transformative process that changes people’s lives."

Congregation Kehilat Shalom in Montgomery Village, Md., decided to work for affordable housing because many of its members’ children couldn’t afford to buy homes in the area.
"My empty nesters said, ‘Our kids are moving out, we want to be near our grandchildren,’ " Rabbi Mark Raphael said.

Kehilat Shalom joined Action in Montgomery, a group of 31 local churches committed to social action, and together they got the county to earmark $140 million for affordable housing on public land.

The congregation still collects clothes for the homeless and holds its annual mitzvah day.
"We should never stop doing direct service," Raphael said. "It saves lives. But the underlying causes of health care, education, housing problems are deeply rooted and need fundamental solutions. By pooling our efforts with other congregations, we can make a difference."

The process is also time consuming. Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco held 150 one-to-one meetings over the course of a year before joining the San Francisco Organizing Project, an interfaith network, to work for health-care reform.

"There was a lot of hesitancy in the synagogue," congregant Susan Lubeck said. "The idea of being the only Jews in a Christian context was unnerving."

It turns out that the churches had been seeking a way to draw synagogues into their social justice work, said Erika Katske, associate director of the San Francisco Organizing Project, just at the time that synagogues nationwide were becoming more interested.

Last June, Sha’ar Zahav hosted its first meeting with city officials to push for health-care reform. Rabbi Camille Angel watched as her congregants stood up and, one by one, told their stories: One had AIDS, another couldn’t afford medical insurance.

The politicos voted unanimously, and San Francisco became one of the first cities to pledge universal health-care coverage.

That was terrific, Angel said, but what the process did for her congregation was just as important.

"I saw my congregants become leaders," the rabbi said. "It was one of the most religious moments I’d ever seen in my sanctuary."

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Religious delegation going to Iran to talk peace

I will be travelling to Iran as a part of a delegation of Christian leaders from Feb. 17 -25. The delegation is organized by the Mennonite Central Committee and the American Friends Service Committee. As you will see from the press release, visits with Muslim and Christian religious leaders, women parlimentarians, former president Khatami and president Ahmedinejad will be among the people we visit. I have been in contact with my Jewish colleagues in the US to inform them of this visit in advance, to assure them that we will ask tough questions from the president regarding holocaust denial, Israel and nuclear issues, and to receive their perspective on these questions. I will go representing the 35 member communions of the NCC. In the context of impending war with Iran, I feel compelled to go out of my religious conviction that dialogue is not only possible, but necessary.

Click here to read this story on the NCC web site

Religious delegation going to Iran to talk peace

A U.S. religious delegation is set to visit Iran Feb. 17-25 to meet religious and political leaders, and in the hope of improving relations between the people of Iran and the U.S.

Akron , Pa. , February 14, 2007 – A delegation of 13 U.S. religious leaders will visit Iran next week (Feb. 17-25) in the hope of defusing tensions between the U.S. and Iran through dialogue between religious and political leaders.

During the weeklong visit, the group plans to meet with Christian and Muslim religious leaders, women serving in the Iranian parliament, former Iranian President Mahommad Khatami and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The U.S. delegation will include the Rev. Dr. Shanta Premawardhana, associate general secretary of the National Council of Churches USA (NCC) for Interfaith Relations, and representatives from the Mennonite, Quaker, Episcopal, Catholic and United Methodist churches as well as Pax Christi and Sojourners/Call to Renewal in Washington , D.C.
Last year, 45 religious leaders met with President Ahmadinejad for 75 minutes during his visit to New York on Sept. 20, 2006 .

Ahmadinejad has been the target of international criticism for his controversial statements denying the Holocaust and a recent conference in Tehran supporting that view as well as, his condemnation of the state of Israel . He also has an ongoing dispute with the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

“Yet, we are compelled to go because we believe that dialogue is not only possible but necessary” Premawardhana said. “We, in no way, hope to legitimize the president’s remarks or his views.”

“As we did at the meeting in New York , we intend to continue to engage the president on his statements regarding the Holocaust,” said Mary Ellen McNish, general secretary of the American Friends Service Committee. “The Holocaust is a historical fact and one of history’s greatest human tragedies.”

“(Ahmadinejad’s) statements make it difficult for Americans to believe that a constructive dialogue is possible,” she added.

Premawardhana, who leads the NCC’s work on Interfaith Relations, said he expects the most productive time in the trip will be in meetings with Muslim and Christian religious leaders.
“Our primary goal is to engage in dialogue with a variety of Iranians,” said Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) international program director, Ron Flaming. The trip is being organized by MCC and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in Philadelphia .

“We are making this trip hoping it will encourage both governments to step back from a course that will lead to conflict and suffering,” said McNish.

As the rhetoric of war appears to be intensifying on the part of both governments and the fact that neither government is speaking directly to one another about peace, the group hopes their visit will make a positive contribution toward ensuring peace between Iran and the United States .

“At the same time 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,” Flaming said.

The delegation will spend most of its time with religious leaders in Tehran , Qom and Isfahan . They will meet with Iranian Evangelical Protestant leaders, the Archbishop of the Armenian Orthodox Church in Iran and Muslim religious leaders in the religious city of Qom .

After the visit, the group plans to meet with members of the U.S. Congress to report what they heard leaders in Iran saying and ways to move toward lessening current tensions.
When several members of the delegation met with members of Congress in October 2006, following the New York meeting with Ahmadinejad, the congressional members encouraged them to continue their efforts and visit Iran if possible.

“We are hopeful,” Flaming said. “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.”

For more information and to set up interviews with delegation members, contact Mark Beach, Mennonite Central Committee, 717-859-1151, .
NCC News contact: Daniel Webster, 212-870-2258, .
The National Council of Churches USA is composed of 35 Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox, historic African American and peace communions representing 45 million Christians in 100,000 local congregations in the United States . For up-to-date information on the National Council of Churches, see

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Michigan Muslims feel Secrarian Ripples -- NPR

I heard this report on NPR yesterday and my colleague Rev. Dan Appleyard from Detroit sent me this link. Dearborn, MI, the largest Muslim community in the US would feel some of the same tensions that are part of their life elsewhere. The picture on the left is that of the largest mosque in the US, in Dearborn MI

In Dearborn, Mich., the nation's largest Arab-American community, Shia and Sunnis have long lived together mostly peacefully. But it appears that some of Iraq's sectarian violence is being mirrored in the Detroit area, particularly in recent months. As the Muslim communities have grown and prospered, more mosques have been built and some of the divides between these sects have been brought into sharper focus.

This is one of those rare instances in which the US media is helping us to understand that the Muslim community is not monolithic, but quite complex. Typically the media paints all Muslims with one broad brush leading many Americans to think so as well. Therefore when some terrorist blows up a bus, all Muslims get implicated by default. Like Christians, Jews and other religious communities, the Muslim community has significant complexity. Thank you NPR and Cheryl Corley for bringing this into the open.

Friday, February 09, 2007

The Greening of the World's Religions and The Great Warming DVD Release

World's Religious leaders have been slow to embrace the the serious questions that relate to environmental stewardship. Two items that came across my desk today point to changes that are occuring in that arena. The interface between Interfaith Relations and Environmental Justice will be a concern I will give greater attention in the future. In this I will partner with the Environmental Justice program of the National Council of Churches.

Click here for their website

First, in an excellent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim elaborate on this question. They write:

Until recently religious communities have been so absorbed in internal sectarian affairs that they were unaware of the magnitude of the environmental crisis at hand. Certainly the natural world figures prominently in the major religions: God's creation of material reality in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; the manifestation of the divine in the karmic processes underlying the recycling of matter in Hinduism and Jainism; the interdependence of life in Buddhism; and the Tao (the Way) that courses through nature in Confucianism and Taoism. Despite those emphases on creation, many religions turned from the turbulent world in a redemptive flight to a serene, transcendent afterlife.

The questions arise, then: If religions are willing to stand by and witness the withering of the earth, has not something of their religious sensibilities become deadened, or at best severely reduced? Why have religions been so late in responding to environmental issues, and what are the obstacles to their full participation? Has concern for personal salvation or redemption become an obstacle to caring for creation? Why has apocalyptic thinking come to interpret ecological collapse as a manifestation of the end time?

Some within religious communities, such as the cultural historian Thomas Berry, do acknowledge the critical nature of our present moment. The concern arising in some religious and environmental circles is whether humans are indeed a viable species — whether our presence on the planet is sustainable. As the Greek Orthodox theologian the Metropolitan John of Pergamon has written, the problem is not simply about creating a stewardship ethic in which humans "manage" the earth. Rather, he suggests that the current crisis challenges us to reformulate our ontology, our very nature as humans.

Read the entire article here

Second, from Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group based in Washington DC comes the following press release about the release of the DVD movie The Great Warming. This action is endorsed by religious leaders of many traditions. Here's the press release:

Religious, Enviro Coalition Aims to Screen Climate Change Film in 10,000 Churches Prior to ’08 Elections: DVD Release of Movie Announced

Emblematic of the growing movement that pairs religious leaders with scientists, a national coalition of clergy, religious groups, policymakers, scientists and environmental groups today announced the DVD release of the critically-acclaimed climate change film The Great Warming and the goal of getting the movie screened in 10,000 churches prior to the 2008 election. Already seen in 500 churches by at least 30,000 people, The Great Warming presents climate change as a moral, ethical and spiritual issue.

The DVD release is part of a major initiative to engage Americans in proactive action and advocacy to make environmental stewardship and creation care a top policy priority. A special package is being offered to churches, which includes a copy of the DVD and a set of downloadable guides specifically designed for religious audiences, including a Sunday School discussion guide and a 60-page Creation Care sermon guide with source material from the Old and New Testaments.

Rev. Dr. Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals, a signer of the recent statement by evangelicals and scientists demanding policy and lifestyle changes to combat global warming is one of the faith leaders in the film. In an NAE letter recommending the film, Cizik wrote, “The Great Warming presents an objective, balanced, overview of climate change – the science, the consequences, and, most importantly, the solutions. It also features a major sequence about the evangelical response to climate change, emphasizing Christian action… May this film challenge, inspire, and ultimately change you, as it has me!”

Following months of calls from people who viewed the documentary in their communities and churches, Regal Cinemas released the film on the big screen last November. Now, convinced that the movie must reach a broad audience in order to galvanize action on climate change, clergy and religious organizations from across the country are all working to promote the film’s DVD release to their congregations and constituencies.

Rev. Dr. Joel Hunter, pastor of the 12,000-member Northland Church in Longwood, Florida who recently stepped down from becoming the president of the Christian Coalition because of the organization’s refusal to broaden its focus, is among the many pastors who have hosted church viewings of The Great Warming. Dr. Hunter is also a member of the Evangelical Climate Initiative and a signer of the recent climate change statement by evangelicals and scientists. "I'm part of the religious right, and am one of those leaders who wants to expand the agenda... to the compassion issues that really care for people and really care about God’s creation," Dr. Hunter said on a teleconference promoting The Great Warming Call to Action.

Also featured in The Great Warming is Rev. Dr. Gerald Durley, Pastor of Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta: “It became crystal clear to me as I watched The Great Warming that environmental concerns must become an integrated, active part of the life-sustaining messages in the African-American community. These essential messages must be mandatory teachings throughout all faith traditions, if we are to survive.”

Click here for audio from the teleconference with evangelical leaders -- Rev. Dr. Joel Hunter, Rev. Dr. Gerald Durley, Rev. Dr. Paul de Vries, and Rev. Dr. Tony Campolo -- announcing The Great Warming Call to Action in October 2006, which has included airing ads on Christian radio stations and widely distributing a unified statement through churches and religious organizations.

DVDs of The Great Warming and the special church exhibition kit can be ordered online by visiting or by calling 800-493-9369.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Prominent Jews call for open debate on Israel -- Guardian UK

Monday's UK Guardian carries this interesting story which I believe will have some repercussions in the Jewish community in the US as well.

Julian Borger
Monday February 5, 2007
The Guardian

A group of prominent British Jews will today declare independence from the country's Jewish establishment, arguing that it puts support for Israel above the human rights of Palestinians.

Independent Jewish Voices will publish an open letter on the Guardian's Comment is Free website calling for a freer debate about the Middle East within the Jewish community. Among the more than 130 signatories are Stephen Fry, Harold Pinter, Mike Leigh, Jenny Diski and Nicole Farhi, as well as leading academics such as Eric Hobsbawm and Susie Orbach.

"We come together in the belief that the broad spectrum of opinion among the Jewish population of this country is not reflected by those institutions which claim authority to represent the Jewish community as a whole," the letter says. Jewish leaders in Britain, it argues "put support for the policies of an occupying power above the human rights of an occupied people" in conflict with Jewish principles of justice and compassion.

Click here to read the entire article.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Video Resources for Interfaith Relations

The Interfaith Relations Commission that met in Arlington, Virginia last weekend watched portions of two videos and engaged in a discussion with Imam Yahya Hendi, Chaplain at Georgetown University and Rabbi Marc Gopin, Director of Religion, Diplomay and Conflict Resolution Institute at George Mason University. More information about the Commission meeting will be forthcoming.

We are encouraging local churches, synagogues and mosques as well as other organizations to use these PBS documentaries for public performance and stimulate dialogue. The videos are also useful to use as educational resources within houses of worship.

Three Faiths, One God: Judaism, Christianity, Islam thoughtfully examines the religious beliefs and practices shared by Jews, Christians and Muslims to illustrate how many individuals in the Abrahamic faith communities are dealing with historical conflicts yet remain dedicated to facilitating understanding and respect. Three Faiths, One God captures a broad range of voices and ideas of ordinary people and respected scholars in the interfaith field. The program contrasts the religious practices of the three faiths, including the rituals of fasting and marriage.

Jews and Christians: A Journey of Faith is a 2 hour, in-depth inquiry into the intertwined history of Jews and Christians. Produced by Auteur Productions, and based on the book by Marvin Wilson, Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith, this video offers helpful insight into how Christianity and Judaism have defined themselves and developed in close sibling relationship. It shows the similarities and differences in liturgical practice, piety and theology that have been so often misunderstood in the long relationship between Christians and Jews, and includes footage of today's hopeful Christian-Jewish dialogues. A guide with additional written material is also available. For more information go to

The videos and study guides can be ordered from the National Council of Churches.
For churches, synagogues and mosques, each video and study guide is $49.95 with public performance rights.

For other institutions such as Ecumenical and Interfaith Councils, libraries, seminaries, universities, each video and study guide is $79.95 with public performance rights.

The videos are also available for private, home use only without public performance rights for $25.00

Shipping and handling is $6.95.

To order or for more details, please write to Sarosh Koshy at the NCC: