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Religious and political leaders hold peacemaking dialogue
September 26, 2008
NEW YORK — About 300 international religious and political figures, including Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, attended a dialogue at a Manhattan hotel on the evening of Sept. 25 to discuss the role of religion in responding to global challenges and building peace and understanding between societies.
Speakers included President Ahmadinejad, the Rev. Kjell Bondevik, former prime minister of Norway, and the Rev. Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, president of the United Nations General Assembly.
The dialogue, which followed a meal, was sponsored by American Friends Service Committee, Mennonite Central Committee, Quaker United Nations Office, Religions for Peace and World Council of Churches in consultation with the Permanent Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations.
Arli Klassen, executive director of Mennonite Central Committee, gave welcoming remarks on behalf of the sponsoring organizations. She lit an oil lamp as a symbol of faith and invited participants to reflect on peacemaking from their own faith perspectives.
"As a Christian, I believe that we are following Jesus Christ's example and his teaching as we eat together and hold this dialogue despite our many differences," Klassen said.
Klassen noted several areas of high tension in relations between Iran, the United States and other nations. Addressing President Ahmadinejad, Klassen raised concerns about his statements on the Holocaust and Israel, Iran's nuclear program and religious freedom in Iran.
"We ask you to find a way within your own country to allow for religious diversity, and to allow people to make their own choices as to which religion they will follow," Klassen said.
The theme of the dialogue was "Has not one God created us? The significance of religious contributions to peace." A series of panelists shared Jewish, Muslim and Christian perspectives on addressing poverty, injustice, environmental degradation and war.
Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, a leader in the Jewish Renewal movement, spoke about Jewish traditions of peacemaking and nonviolence and drew upon her work for reconciliation between Muslims and Jews and Palestinians and Israelis. She also spoke about the significance of mourning the deaths of all victims of war, including the millions of people killed in the Holocaust, World War II and wars in Iran and Iraq.
"Because of the Holocaust, I learned from the rabbis who ordained and guide me, to be active in preventing further suffering of all human beings as a primary religious call to action," Gottlieb said.
Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, spoke about Islamic principles for alleviating poverty, caring for the environment and working for peace and justice. He encouraged his interreligious audience to cooperate more closely toward these goals.
"Has not God created us?" Awad said. "Yes — and he wants us to work together."
Dr. John Brademas, a former U.S. congressman and president emeritus of New York University, served as the event moderator. Along with several of the evening's speakers, Brademas called for direct negotiations between Iran and the United States.
"We believe that war is not the solution to the differences that divide peoples," Brademas said. "Dialogue can make a real difference."
Although Klassen, the Rev. Bondevik and others raised concerns about religious freedoms and human rights in Iran, President Ahmadinejad did not address these issues directly.
President Ahmadinejad spoke at length about theological issues, such as monotheism, justice and commonalities among religions.
"All divine prophets have spoken of one truth," the president said. "The religion of Islam is the same as that offered by Moses."
President Ahmadinejad spoke in broad terms about "challenges facing the human community," including poverty, declining morality and a lack of religion in public life. He decried the humanitarian costs of wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon and spoke extensively about the hardships suffered by Palestinians. He criticized nations such as the United States for maintaining nuclear weapons and did not deviate from his previous statements that Iran's nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.
The evening's program ran later than scheduled, and President Ahmadinejad departed shortly after concluding his remarks without taking questions from the audience as had been planned.
Robert J. Suderman, general secretary of Mennonite Church Canada, was among several Canadians who attended the dialogue.
"I think it was a valuable thing in terms of the objectives, which was to nurture peace by fostering understanding and human relationships," he said.
Suderman added that the event's participants should also reach out to people who objected to the dialogue with President Ahmadinejad, such as protesters outside the hotel who represented various Jewish and Evangelical Christian groups, among others.
"What's left is to build relationships with people on the other side of the street," Suderman said.