Iranian President at Church Center for United Nations
by YVETTE MOORE*
New York City, Sept. 27--Ecumenical leaders peppered Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with questions about peace, Iran’s nuclear program, the Holocaust and the state of human rights in his country during a 2 1/2-hour interfaith dialogue at the Women’s Division-owned Church Center for the United Nations in New York City yesterday. The Mennonite Central Committee sponsored the event as “A time of dialogue and prayerful reflection among the children of Abraham.”
President Ahmadinejad is in the city for the opening of the United Nation’s General Assembly.
Women’s Division Deputy General Secretary Harriett Jane Olson opened the event with a welcome to the gathering that shared a bit of United Methodist Women history.
“This ‘set aside’ space is designed to offer both the hospitality and the testimony that is part of the Christian calling to stand for the ‘things that make for peace,’” Ms. Olson said. “Based on our understanding of that calling, we have offered this space to ecumenical dialog and witness since 1963.
“We know that women and children are particularly vulnerable to violence and to war, and so we stand for them. We stand with the women and children of Iraq … Israel ... Palestine … the United States.
“We engage in this work because we are part of the Wesleyan theological tradition. In our tradition, as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, we express our personal piety by taking action to make the world more loving and just.”
President Ahmadinejad cited the biblical prophets’ message of justice and peace as God’s desire for the world in his opening statement replete with religious language and concepts. Six church leaders followed in turn with comments and questions. Ecumenical panelist included Albert Lobe, executive director, Mennonite Central Committee; the Rev. Dr. Karen Hamilton, Executive Secretary, Canadian Council of Churches; Mary Ellen McNish, general secretary, American Friends Committee; Fr. Drew Christiansen, Editor of America; the Rev. Chris Ferguson, representative to the United Nations, Commission of the Churches on International Affairs; and Dr. Glen Stassen, professor of Christian ethics, Fuller Seminary.
When asked about human rights violations against Christians and other minorities in his country, the Iranian leader said Jews, Christians, Armenians and Assyrians have political representation in the nation’s government greater than their percentage of the population. Church leaders who met with the leader previously said President Ahmadinejad did not deny the Jewish Holocaust, but called it part of 50 million people killed during World War II. Calls for a clear public acknowledgement of the Jewish Holocaust resulted in the president reiterating his position that it should be studied as an academic subject.
On peace, President Ahmadinejad said it is Iran rather than Israel or the United States that should be concerned about the use of nuclear weapons in the region.
“Who are the ones to really be concerned, you in the United States or Iranians?” President Ahmadinejad said. “In the Middle East, who’s the one who has 200 nuclear warheads? We’re the ones who should be concerned when 100,000 troops are on our border threatening us everyday. … But we have not expressed concern. That’s the irony.”
President Ahmadinejad said international inspections confirm that Iran is enriching uranium at energy-use levels.
The dialogue was the third with President Ahmadinejad for some church leaders at the event. Forty-five U.S. religious leaders met with him in New York City September 2006 and another 13 met with him in Tehran in February.
Ms. Olson said the day’s dialogue was part of a long haul to peacemaking.
“We haven’t reached the point of hard truth-telling,” Ms. Olson said. “But this dialogue may help to de-escalate the language of hostility, which is a necessary part of building bridges.”
Ms. Olson said opening the doors of the church center for the dialogue was a decision based in the Christian faith.
“The Christian Gospel calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves (Luke 10:27); to love even our enemies (Luke 6: 27); and to open dialogue with those with whom we are in conflict for the sake of peacemaking (Matthew 18:15-17),” Ms. Olson said.
Co-sponsors of this interfaith dialogue include:
- Friends Committee on National Legislation
- American Friends Service Committee (AFSC)
- World Council of Churches, Commission of the Church on International Affairs
- Mennonite Church Canada
- Pax Christi USA
- Church of the Brethren (General Board)
- World Council of Religions for Peace
- Mennonite Church – USA
- Mennonite Central Committee
*Yvette Moore is an executive secretary for communications for the Women’s Division of the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries.