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A lit oil lamp at the Sept. 25 dinner and dialogue. Mennonite Central Committee

A lit oil lamp at the Sept. 25 dinner and dialogue. Mennonite Central Committee

MCC dialogue toward peace with Iran

Arli Klassen and Daryl Byler
September 30, 2008

Strong opinions have been expressed over Mennonite Central Committee's participation in the September 25 dinner and dialogue that included Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Some news media spread incorrect information about the event’s purpose. Our goal was respectful, peace-building dialogue, not to honor the president or any other individual. In sharing a meal with such a controversial figure, we were drawing on both the deep spiritual roots that sustained our persecuted ancestors and on Jesus' example.

Last week in New York City, a simple oil lamp glowed on the podium before the gathering of people of diverse faiths. MCC gave such a lamp to President Ahmadinejad last year. Similar lamps yield gentle yet insistent light in many Mennonite and Brethren in Christ worship services. In every situation, we look to the light of Christ to lead us.

MCC has been given a mandate to carry out relief, development and peace work by Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches in Canada and the United States. Together we hold to the "peace position," a commitment to obey Jesus by loving one's enemies and responding to aggression with positive action (Luke 6:21-36). Our work in Iran, including these meetings with its president, focuses on building bridges of peace between countries that see each other as enemies.

Counsel to converse
MCC’s meetings with President Ahmadinejad grew out of nearly 20 years of on-the-ground program experience and trusting relationships with Iranians.

Some have suggested that MCC should not meet with such a controversial political leader. MCC has sought the guidance of church leaders. On balance, the counsel has been to continue the conversations. Leaders believe it is important for the church to talk about the practical meaning of peacemaking in our world. At the September 25 event, the Rev. Dr. Patricia Shelly, professor of Bible and religion at Bethel College, North Newton, Kan., gave a powerful reflection on how Anabaptist peacemaking is rooted in the example and teachings of Jesus.

U.S. government officials also have encouraged MCC to continue the dialogue. The United States has not had diplomatic relations with Iran for nearly 30 years and teeters on the brink of military action against it. In this context, the consequences of not talking seem to greatly outweigh its risks – especially until the governments of Iran and the United States begin to speak directly to one another. Relations between Canada and Iran also have been deteriorating and conversation is often difficult.

Progress and challenge
MCC has now held four meetings with President Ahmadinejad, all initiated by him. Has anything changed as a result of these conversations? It is difficult to assess the long-term impact, but several things stand out.

First, we better understand each other’s points of view. President Ahmadinejad knows that MCC, which has partners and programs with both Israelis and Palestinians, believes the Holocaust is an historical fact and one of the great tragedies of the 20th century and that we want him to change the way he talks about it. He knows that MCC is deeply concerned about the situation for Palestinians but also about his rhetoric regarding the State of Israel. He knows that we believe that any solution to the conflict must provide peace with justice for all.

Second, we believe that the president's public comments have moderated somewhat over the past two years. When challenged regarding his comments about "wiping Israel off the map," Ahmadinejad has said to us in previous meetings and, at last, in interviews with both CNN and the Los Angeles Times in late September, that he is not talking about a military solution. Rather, he supports the "one-state" solution, a political resolution in which Israelis and Palestinians elect a single government to represent both peoples.

Third, the circle of conversation has expanded. The most recent meeting included, for the first time, several Jewish representatives as well as government policymakers. This is a hopeful direction.

Still, our conversations with President Ahmadinejad sometimes feel like ships passing in the night. Both participants in the dialogue seem to see themselves as "prophets" to the other. MCC and the other faith groups that have met with the president are compelled to challenge his controversial comments and call for greater freedoms inside Iran. President Ahmadinejad emphasizes the dominating U.S. role in the world and the Israeli occupation of Palestine. He consistently calls on the powerful nations of the world to show respect in relating to Iran.

And we are greatly troubled by reports of increased religious persecution in Iran and the expanding use of the death penalty to punish religious converts. Last week, we asked President Ahmadinejad to allow Iranians to make their own choices as to which religion they will follow. We were able to say this to him because of this meeting. Face-to-face conversations create space to clarify perspectives and raise hard questions.

Following Christ’s light
We too can be skeptical about the value of these meetings with the president of Iran. But when the doors are opened for us to be agents of Christ’s peace, we cannot step away. God calls us to engage those with whom we disagree.

Please pray with us and for MCC, that we may be wise in the way of Christ, and foolish in the way of the world, as we follow Christ’s light toward peace with Iran.