US Religious Leaders to Visit Iran

Amid rising tensions between their two countries, a group of U.S. religious leaders will leave Saturday for meetings with Iranian clergy and political leaders, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in Tehran next week.

Participants in the 13-member U.S. delegation, organized by the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and the Philadelphia-based American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), said their purpose will be to foster dialogue.

"We are making this trip hoping it will encourage both governments to step back from a course that will lead to conflict and suffering," said Mary Ellen McNish, general secretary of the AFSC.

Hostility between the two nations reached new heights recently as U.S. President George W. Bush this week renewed accusations that Iranian intelligence is supplying bombs to anti-U.S. militias in Iraq, and continued to build up its military forces in Iraq and the Gulf.

The weeklong visit will attempt to build on a New York meeting last September between U.S. religious leaders and Ahmadinejad, in which the harsh language between the two countries formed a central part of the discussion.

In response to a question regarding the slogan of certain Iranian protesters, "Death to America," the Iranian president said, "There was no cause for anger as they are not addressed to the American nation but to the aggressive, unjust, warmongering and bullying U.S. policies."

Ahmadinejad himself, however, has become a focus of enormous controversy as a result of his questioning of the Holocaust.

"As we did at the meeting in New York, we intend to continue to engage the president on his statements regarding the Holocaust," said McNish. "The Holocaust is a historical fact and one of history’s greatest human tragedies."

At the same time, however, the organizers expressed the hope that their meeting with Ahmadinejad would not dominate the media attention on their trip.

"There is a great risk that our goal to encourage improved relations between the people of Iran and the U.S. will be overshadowed by controversy surrounding President Ahmadinejad," said Ron Flaming, international program director of the MCC.

Although the group’s schedule remains a secret for security reasons, the organizers expect to meet with former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, Muslim and Christian religious leaders, and female members of parliament, the Majlis.

In addition, the organizers believe that the U.S. delegation will be allowed to meet with Ayatollah Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi who has been characterized as a close spiritual adviser of President Ahmadinejad, and an opponent of Iran’s reformists. They will also meet with Iranian Evangelical Protestant leaders and the Archbishop of the Armenian Orthodox Church in Iran.

"We think it is important to connect with a range of people in Iran, and that’s why we included the various groupings of people we have," Flaming told IPS. "So while the president is an important piece, that’s not the only reason we’re going. We’re religious people going to establish bridges with Iranian people. We are not politicians."

Following the trip, the delegation will meet with members of the U.S. Congress to share its findings and discuss ways to reduce tensions between the two countries.

"We are hearing new concerns from members of Congress about President Bush’s escalating confrontation with Iran and President Ahmadinejad’s escalating confrontation with the U.S.," said Joe Volk, executive director of the Friends Committee on National Legislation, and a member of the delegation.

Despite growing calls in Congress for the Bush administration to engage Iran diplomatically, the White House has so far ruled out any negotiation until Tehran freezes its enrichment of uranium, a key part of its nuclear program.

Iran’s refusal so far to do so, as well as Bush’s recent charges of Iran’s intervention in Iraq, has fueled tensions between the two countries. Iran insists that its enrichment program is permitted under the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The FCNL’s representative on the delegation stressed that the Quaker group opposes all efforts toward nuclear proliferation.