Christian group seeks to build bridges of peace and security between Iran and U.S.
TEHRAN, Feb. 21 (Mehr News Agency) -- A multi-denominational Christian delegation from the United States has come to Iran to meet religious and political figures and the Iranian people in order to “build bridges of peace and security” between Iran and the U.S.
Mary Ellen McNish and Ron Flaming
Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad traveled to New York in September 2006 to attend the UN General Assembly session. Forty-six Christian and Muslim religious leaders met with Ahmadinejad on September 20 to discuss the influence of religious communities on the improvement of relations between Iran and the United States.
On Ahmadinejad’s invitation, the 13-member group arrived in Tehran early on Monday and will be staying until February 25. Improving relations between the people of Iran and the U.S. is one of the main goals of the delegation.
The Tehran Times and the Mehr News Agency conducted an interview on February 19 with two members of the delegation, Mary Ellen McNish, the general secretary of the American Friends Service Committee, and Ron Flaming, the international program director of the Mennonite Central Committee.
Following are excerpts of the interview:
Q: Could you tell us about the purpose of your visit to Iran?
McNish: We are here to build bridges of peace and security between the people of Iran and the United States.
Flaming: We came so that the American people also can understand, have a better picture of the Iranians, and not just based on what they see in the media and other voices, which might be distorted in terms of what they are hearing.
So I think it’s important to go back to our churches, to the churches that we represent, with whatever message we can bring back about our visit to Iran.
Q: When you went to the Congress, were there any specific members of Congress favorable to your views, or are some of them favorable to this view or trying to push it?
Flaming: First of all, let’s be clear that we are not representatives of the government. We don’t represent them and we haven’t been sent by them.
However, there are many in the Congress who are calling for direct negotiations with Iran to resolve the differences between our two nations.
In that sense, we have heard encouragement for these kinds of efforts to begin to talk together.
Q: Any specific people or…
Flaming: There would be many others who are on the record for calling for this administration to engage in more direct conversation.
McNish: We sent a letter to President Bush advocating direct negotiations.
Q: Can you please elaborate on the obstacles to dialogue?
Flaming: I think a part of the obstacle is that we haven’t been talking to each other and… It’s little wonder if you don’t talk to each other that trust is not very high between our two countries. So there is this wall that is built up because of that. I think we have to find ways to talk with each other more directly so those issues can be dealt with, and find ways to resolve them.
Q: But usually there are some extremists who try to block the way.
Flaming: Certainly. But we understand that what we are trying to do is to see if we can provide a bridge which overcomes those kinds of obstacles by coming here directly as a people concerned, trying to find a way to connect.
McNish: And as religious leaders, we feel it is our duty to not only build bridges for peace and security, but also to begin a dialogue person to person as a model for others to follow.
Q: Basically you are a coalition of church groups. But I notice a lot of the members of the group are Mennonites and…
Mary Ellen McNish
McNish: Mennonites and Quakers are our cosponsors.
Q: These are the Christian groups known for being more peace-oriented and pacifist.
McNish: Both Mennonites and Quakers are part of the traditional peace church, but what we find is that the Catholics, the peace people, the Methodists, and many members of the National Council of Churches are with us.
Flaming: While we disagree about many things, on this issue we are very concerned about the current tensions between our two countries, and all of us agree about that. And we are concerned that this could end very badly. But we also think that there are possibilities for a new path that would lead to a different future, and that we all agree on. And we are here to try and work on that agenda.
McNish: And there are very deep divides, but our expectation is that as we get to know the people, and all these networks grow bigger, people of peace who want to work together will be gathered. And we can have partners here in Iran that we can work directly with. So it’s really a mission of peace, building peace.
Flaming: We (the Mennonites) have been in Iran for the last seventeen years, working at relief work with the Red Crescent Society, first in the earthquake in 1990, and then working together with the Red Crescent Society and the relief work on the Afghanistan war refugees, and more recently in the Bam earthquake, and we have developed an exchange program…
Q: Could you tell us about your two meetings earlier today?
McNish: Well, they were very different meetings. The first one was with the Archbishop of the Armenian (Orthodox) Church (Archbishop Sebu Sarkissian), and that was a very interesting conversation where we were learning of what it’s like for the Christian community in Tehran. It’s very interesting to hear how they have a good relationship with their Muslim neighbors and it seems to work well and they seem very happy. And we talked a little bit about how we can work together with them, and we got some ideas, and we will meet him again tomorrow. And we met with Ayatollah (Mohammad Emami) Kashani and we were all moved by how spiritually-centered he was. We asked a couple of questions. We heard him say that Islam forbids weapons of mass destruction, and we were very happy to hear him confirm that.
We really are worried about our own government’s capacity for aggressive talk. And we, the members who are here, really believe that peace is the only way to the future and that it is incumbent on each one of us to participate in some peacemaking effort so that another tragedy or suffering can not possibly happen.
Flaming: A common theme I heard in both cases was a strong call for more people-to-people exchanges, dialogues, discussions, which gets us back to our mission, which is trying to build bridges of understanding and security.
Q: You said, besides meeting the officials, you are going to meet the average citizens. Do you have any plans for that?
Flaming: We are still finalizing our program, and this is one of the things we are sorting out. This is a very short visit, but we are still working on it.
We are going to see Isfahan and Qom.
Q: A lot of people in the United States are not aware that there is a Christian community in Iran.
Flaming: That’s why it is very important for us to meet with various groups, including the Christian group.
Q: Isn’t it being somehow suppressed in the media in the U.S.? There is a Jewish community here, too, but Iran has always been accused of being anti-Jewish, although Jews are living normal lives here also. This information seems to be suppressed in the media in the West and especially in the U.S.A.
Flaming: I would say that there is misperception on both sides. And that’s again why it is important for us to find ways to connect person to person, people to people, and learn from each other, and to try to build relations or bridges. Certainly, those misperceptions are there.
McNish: And just like in Iran, the media explosion in the United States makes it difficult. They only want to cover sensational things, they don’t want to cover diplomacy and a lot of people are not informed.
And that’s our job. We are really looking forward to going back to not only educate all of our churches but also to try to influence how they influence our public officials.
Q: Are the Mennonites and Quakers now having a greater influence on other Christian groups?
McNish: Well this came on the heels of our meeting with President Ahmadinejad in New York in September, when he was in New York for the UN General Assembly session, and in that meeting with him he invited us to come. It was the Mennonites who had relationships in Iran who asked to host that meeting, and then together we organized this delegation. We invited all these people, and they were anxious to join us because the message of peace is far greater than just historic peace churches. They believe we live with the God of peace and it’s our responsibility to help others come to reconciliation over differences. There are differences, no question. But reconciliation is the key, not a kind of military action.
Q: There are religious groups in the U.S. which are closer to President Bush. And they support war. Why do the religious groups not have a common position toward such issues?
Flaming: Certainly, as you can imagine, we have differences on many things, and I don’t think we will ever agree on many things in terms of the various groups. We are focusing on what we can do together in common with this group of people. We represent a significant part of the Christian community. If we can do something about this, if we can have some influence on other groups, we certainly will try. But our approach is to focus, at this point, on what we can do, what bridges we can build.
Q: So, after you return home, you are going to meet congressmen. Are you hopeful that you can influence their position toward Iran?
McNish: We particularly want to share the message that we offer over and over and over again, that it is against Islam to have or develop or use nuclear weapons.
We believe that many people in the United States are fearful, inflamed by the media, that Iran is developing nuclear weapons. We want to try not to be naive or anything like that. But we want to say… what we heard when we were in Iran. It was very strong. Whether it will work the first time, that message, it has to be brought over and over again, and we are really looking to this most recent tension, but we heard some news developed just today that there is a possibility that (EU foreign policy chief) Javier Solana came up with a new idea around the Security Council resolution and a third party is coming in there to broker. That would be very positive.
Q: Could you tell us about the peace movement in the United States?
McNish: There is a new peace and justice movement, particularly for the Palestinians. There is enormous support among our churches. All of them are on record saying that there must be a just peace proper for the Palestinians. We work on that. We work on that in the Congress, we work on that in our communities, and there is a growing movement.
Flaming: Thank you for your interest in our visit.
McNish: We want both sides to forgive each other. We know that we made mistakes. This is a journey for peace.
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