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Meeting President Ahmadinejad of Iran
A meeting in New York City afforded an opportunity to try to understand the controversial leader.

On September 26 I attended a meeting in New York City between North American religious leaders and the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The meeting was held at his request and hosted by the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), which has worked in Iran for many years and is known by the Iranian government. The goal was a respectful interfaith dialogue. Our shared assumption was that people of faith have an obligation to talk, to acknowledge issues and speak about them respectfully, and to encourage governments to do the same.

The meeting was both informative and frustrating.

Ahmadinejad spoke for 20 minutes, followed by comments and questions from five respondents. He was then given time to respond. The meeting began with readings from Romans 12 about seeking peace and loving others including one's enemies. The Qur'an was also read, addressing fear of Allah and obedience to all his messengers.

The meeting was both informative and frustrating. It gave a window into the ethos of a Muslim national leader but offered only limited clarification on some of the controversial statements he had made recently.

Some of Ahmadinejad's public comments and stated beliefs — for example relating to the Holocaust, Israel and nuclear weapons — are deeply disturbing and offensive. They must be challenged, and they were in the meeting. He would not simply state "The Holocaust did happen," although he did say that "it" happened in Europe and then questioned why "the solution" was being imposed on the Palestinian people. He did not repeat his infamous quote that Israel should be "wiped off the face of the map." Instead he proposed that the people of the region, Palestinians and Jews, should have a common open election, which he believes would result in a Palestinian state — and thus an end to the State of Israel. As for nuclear weapons, he says they are incompatible with Islam.

Despite these clarifications, his contribution to the escalation of rhetoric continues to have an effect. And, no doubt, he will continue to play to factions in Iran whose support he will need to be re-elected.

The meeting did give those gathered an opportunity to begin to understand his vision of life.

Ahmadinejad spoke of the divide between monotheists and those who do not follow the prophets. He contrasted arrogant power seekers who distort God's message with the prophets (he spoke of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus and Mohammad) who call us to brotherhood, justice, reason, peace, piety, defense of the oppressed, respect for the rights of others and opposition to tyranny. He described surrender to the will of God and serving God as the keys to freedom.

Ahmadinejad said Islam is a political philosophy, an all encompassing way of life. Iran is a theocracy: he believes that the law of God expressed through the prophets should be enforced — which is not that different from the Christendom period of Western history when the roles of church and state were intertwined.

While some Christians such as the Mennonites have always opposed Christendom, today there is a widespread agreement among Christians that religious imperialism is inconsistent with the Gospel of Jesus, that evangelism is a matter of persuasion and not coercion. Religious freedom is fundamental and includes the freedom to express one's faith and to change one's religion.

As the Apostle Paul wrote, through Christ God was pleased "to reconcile to Himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross." This is a radically different understanding of Jesus than the Muslim view of Jesus as prophet.

As Christians we are called to be peacemakers. Where there is a desire to meet and a possibility of finding a means of de-escalating rhetoric, the potential exists to help make peace and to press for the respect for basic human rights. So the MCC is playing an important role, and we must be willing to participate.

Churches need to engage on issues of conscience, freedom of religion, the affirmation and respect for the human dignity of all persons — as an expression and outworking of the Gospel of Jesus. In so doing we bear witness to our Saviour and Lord.

Bruce J. Clemenger is the president of The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.

Originally published in Faith Today, November/December 2007.




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