Should religious groups talk to Iranian president?
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had dinner with around 200 people of various faiths including Mennonites, Quakers, United Methodists, Jews and Zoroastrians who said they wanted to promote peace by meeting such a prominent foe of the United States. You can read our story about the meeting here.
Those who attended the Iftar meal in a Manhattan hotel ballroom had to brave a line of protesters outside who accused them of sitting down with a man little better than Hitler. Major Jewish groups had urged the cancellation of the event.
It was billed as a panel discussion titled: “What does my faith tradition bring to the struggle to eliminate poverty, injustice, global warming and war?”
Speakers included U.N. General Assembly President Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann, who is a Catholic priest, and former Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell-Magne Bondevik, who is a Lutheran, as well as Ahmadinejad.
“I stand here today, even when many of my co-religionists are dismissing, demeaning or boycotting this important conversation,” Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb said in her speech, arguing that it was her obligation to engage in dialogue in order to seek peace.
Arli Klassen, executive director of the Mennonite Central Committee, said she welcomed the presence of the protesters outside. “I respect their right to have their opinion. It’s especially important where we’re talking to a country where these rights (to protest) are not met in the same way,” she told Reuters.
“I respectfully disagree (with them) because I believe it’s important to dialogue, especially when there are differences,” she said. “The consequences of not dialoguing are very severe.”
John Brademas, a former Democratic congressman and trustee of a group called Religions for Peace, told the audience religious cooperation could build bridges.
“As people of faith, we want to advocate our respective governments, including the governments of Iran and the United States, to resolve their conflicts through dialogue.”
The previous day, Ahmadinejad had met rabbis from a fringe group of ultra-religious Jews who seek the dismantling of the state of Israel.
The rabbis from Neturei Karta International, or Jews United Against Zionism, had showered Ahmadinejad with praise and presented him with a gift of an ornate silver cup.
The church representatives at Thursday’s dinner were less friendly, taking the Iranian leader to task over his comments minimizing the Holocaust and urging him to tone down his rhetoric about Israel. Only a few dozen of the 200 or so at the dinner stood to applaud at the end of his speech, and many of them were from the Iranian mission.
Rohinton Dadina, a Zoroastrian priest who said a prayer at the dinner, said if Ahmadinejad’s views were changed even 1 percent by what he heard, it was worth holding such events.
“The main reason I wanted to come is I’m hoping that this event would have some influence on President Ahmadinejad in terms of him toning down his rhetoric, him looking towards peace,” Dadina told Reuters.
Earlier this week, Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel urged the United Nations to indict Ahmadinejad for inciting genocide rather than allow him to speak at the U.N. General Assembly. His speech there on Tuesday was denounced by Western leaders, human rights groups and Jewish organizations as anti-Semitic.
Tell us what you think — should people of faith talk to Ahmadinejad? Or should the world shun him as an outcast? Is religion fomenting tension or can it help solve the problems between Iran and the United States?
PICTURE: REUTERS/Claudia Parsons and Lucas Jackson (Ahmadinejad greets religious leaders as he arrives at the dinner (top), listens as Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb speaks, and speaks at the U.N. General Assembly)