Should religious groups talk to Iranian president?

September 26, 2008

ahmadinejad-waves.jpgA rabbi, a Mennonite and a Zoroastrian priest were having dinner with the president of Iran — sounds like the start of a joke, but it happened in New York this week.

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.

ahmadinejad-listens.jpg“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.

ahmadinejad-at-un.jpgEarlier 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)


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

You can read more background on the history and the Christian motivation behind this dialog with the President of Iran on Mennonite Central Committee’s web site. Go to tml

Posted by Sara | Report as abusive

why shouldn’t they talk? in this age of nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction that are capable of starting a world war 3 even if it’s used by 1 country, dialogue and debate are the key to tolerance and prevention of wars while still reaching a point of negotiations. this is especially important to middle eastern countries where muslims already feel that actions of the western countries are taken agains them for religious purposes.there is alot of misunderstanding and ignorance on the part of the west towards the middle east. there are hypocritical policies that lean against the middle east that have allowed islamic extremist to be able to use against the west and declare these fake holy wars. even muslims who are against the extremist begin to think that the west is out to oppress them and persecute them because of their religion and so they might turn to extremisim as the only option. often times, moderate religious leaders tend to be more knowledgable and aware of world affairs then politicans. they also tend to be more open minded and tolerant about the view of others. it might take the interventions of the pope, high level rabbis and imams to come together and force the political forces on all sides to come together and to a table and finally start talking. if they don’t then expect the start of a war that is going to have disastorous reprecussions on all sides.

Posted by sid | Report as abusive

I believe that communication with Ahmandinejad is essential. His willingness to talk with these religious leaders show that his mind may be open-even if just a fraction-to changing. Dadina is correct in thinking that any progress is worth their time. Also, Ahmandinejad is not the only ears that are listening during these meetings. This type of communication breeds healthy relationships and a better understanding; something that this world desperately needs.

Posted by Nicole | Report as abusive

Martin Buber, in his book, “Between man and man” encouraged dalogue between people of passionately conflicting views. Not talking is an immature reaction that children utilise when they can’t entirely get their way. Surely we can’t believe that not talking will produce anything but continued stalemate and increasing fear and mistrust.

Posted by marc germaine | Report as abusive

Something which is receiving *no* coverage whatsoever by the media (including Reuters) is the degree to which Ahmadinejad is going out on a limb (and is vulnerable) relative to the official Shi’ite religious establishment itself in Iran. In fact, his views are a lot more progressive than the orthodox Shi’ite theologians. And, from a strictly theological perspective, his approach is much more conducive to Peace than the position taken by the Shi’ite theologians.

One version of his speech to the U.N. General Assembly, published by Global Security, is *sharply* different than the version published in the Israeli newspaper Ha Aretz, (links to both are on my website)a link to which was then published on

And the theological differences are quite telling and quite dramatic.

But the media of the Israel is unwilling to pursue these theological differences–simply broad-brushing everything he says as being “anti-Semitic”; while the media in the United States and other Western countries is following fundamentally the same approach…

All for the purpose of preserving the economic interests of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious ‘authorities\'; which, for some reason, are considered infinitely more important than Peace itself.

Posted by Michael Cecil | Report as abusive

Since more people have been killed, maimed, and enslaved in the name of religion and God these last five thousand years than for any other reason, it’s long overdue for the saner leadership of these varied faiths to try and find some common ground in the spirit of peace, justice, and respect with each other. These self-professed people of faith better start choosing between the spiritual and social needs of their people -or- being blindly manipulated or willingly part and parcel of the political/military/industrial complex that thrives and promotes hate, war, and the divisiveness of the human species to further their own evil agenda. So yes, I stongly support meaningful dialogue with Ahmadinejad and the leadership of every country on this precious planet of ours, free of exploitation and belligerency, and conducted in the spirt of friendship, goodwill and the uplifting of all people living in harmony and free from want. The people must DEMAND nothing less from their respective secular and religious leaders NOW.

Posted by True Left | Report as abusive

Spirited Dona says– I am non demominational, with Baptist and Episcopal leanings, to be fair! I have known Mennonites and Methodists, (my Hillary is a Methodist), but they would not be representative of the average American, who would kick his disrespectful butt for a quarter! What did he learn? We ‘re warm and toasty? What did they learn? He would rather be dining with Sarah Palin!

Posted by Spirited Dona | Report as abusive

Talking to Darth Vader won’t make a real difference. The Dark Lord of the Sith is the one who really call the shots. That means every time the position of Dark Lord of the Sith is compromise or shamed any form of agreement or mutual understanding will be more painful to the Iranian population.

Posted by ibelieve | Report as abusive

As i read some of these post I am amazed at how clueless people are. You people do understand that Ahmadinejad wants anyone that is not a of his faith dead. He denies what Hitler did. He wants to bomb Isreal off the face of the earth. I don’t know how any thinking person can even imagine one could talk to this man and make a difference. People get this and get it now. Ahmadinejad wants you dead if you don’t think the way he does. He wants America dead!

Posted by Victoria | Report as abusive