September 27, 2007
Ahmadinejad Meets Clerics, and Decibels Drop a Notch
By LAURIE GOODSTEIN
The New York Times
After two days of prickly confrontations with critics at Columbia University and the United Nations, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran held a friendly, even warm, exchange yesterday with Christian leaders from the United States and Canada convinced that dialogue is the only way to prevent war.
The session, held under tight security at a chapel across the street from the United Nations, was a reminder that Mr. Ahmadinejad is a religious president of a religious nation who relishes speaking on a religious plane. He spent his 20 allotted minutes at the start of the two-hour meeting recounting the chain of prophets central to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and the commonality of their messages.
He took questions from a panel that included a Quaker, a Catholic, an Anglican, a Baptist and a representative of the interfaith World Council of Churches, some of whom separately said they had been criticized by other religious leaders for sitting down with the Iranian president. Given the furor over Mr. Ahmadinejad’s earlier appearances, there was no advance publicity.
The gathering, which included an audience of about 140 other religious leaders, was organized by the Mennonites and Quakers, churches known for their commitment to pacifism.
The organizers said that they had pressed hard to find a Jewish leader to join the panel of questioners, but that those invited declined because they could not win support from Jewish organizations.
“My heart was broken that there was so little support from other religions to be here,” said Mary Ellen McNish, general secretary of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker group that helped sponsor the event. “If we don’t walk down this path of dialogue, we’re going to end up in conflagration.”
Mr. Ahmadinejad’s smile at times turned to a grimace as the panelists prodded him, politely, about his record on the Holocaust, human rights abuses, Israel and nuclear weapons development. Also politely, he conceded nothing, and often deflected the inquiries by turning the spotlight on the policies of the United States and Israel.
“Who are the ones that are filling their arsenals with nuclear weapons?” he said. “In the United States they have tested the fifth generation of atomic bunker bombs, missiles that go as far as 12,000 kilometers. Who is the real danger here?”
Though Mr. Ahmadinejad’s answers differed little, the tone of the session was a marked contrast to the verbal pummeling he received at Columbia University on Monday, when the university’s president, Lee C. Bollinger, called the Iranian president either “brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated” for his stance on the Holocaust.
At the clerics’ meeting, Albert Lobe, executive director of the Mennonite Central Committee, said pointedly, “We mean to extend to you the hospitality which a head of state deserves.”
The session was part of a concerted push by these religious leaders to increase political support in the United States for talks with Iran. Some of these religious leaders also met with Mr. Ahmadinejad last year in New York and in February on a trip to Iran.
One critic said that these religious leaders were well intentioned, but naïve.
Malcolm I. Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said in a telephone interview: “They’re not going to convince him. Their very presence there gives him respectability.”
Ms. McNish, of the American Friends Service Committee, said the reverse was true: “The more we isolate him, the more support he gets at home.”
But even the Bahais, a minority religious group that has suffered persecution in Iran, said they supported these efforts at dialogue with the Iranian government. They had been invited to the prior meetings, but the Iranian side refused to come if Bahais were there, said Kit Bigelow, director of external affairs, National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahais of the United States.
The panelists on Wednesday included the Rev. Drew Christiansen, a Roman Catholic who is editor in chief of America, a Jesuit weekly; Karen A. Hamilton, a Canadian Anglican who is general secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches; the Rev. Chris Ferguson, also a Canadian, who represents the World Council of Churches at the United Nations; and Glen Stassen, a professor of Christian ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary, an evangelical institution.
Mr. Stassen, who has helped to prod American evangelicals to take on issues including global warming and torture, said he and other evangelicals would soon circulate a document intended to broaden support for dialogue with Iran, based on the model of dialogue with North Korea.
Mr. Stassen asked President Ahmadinejad, if the United States could guarantee no aggression against Iran, “could there be an Iranian guarantee of no violence against Israel?”
Mr. Ahmadinejad responded by asking for a three-minute break “for the interpreter.” After the break, he said that it was the United States and “the Zionist regime” that had nuclear weapons, while Iran was seeking to enrich uranium only for “fuel purposes.”
The impetus for these talks came not from the Americans, but from the Iranians, said Ed Martin, Iran consultant for the Mennonite Central Committee, a group that has done aid work in Iran.
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