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Professor joins church leaders in continuing dialogue with Iran

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – “Hospitable” is probably not the word that would best describe the reception Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad got at Columbia University in New York on Sept. 24. Two days later, when a group of religious leaders met with the president, they tried for a different atmosphere.

Patricia Shelly, professor of Bible and religion at Bethel College, was one of about 125 who joined in an interfaith encounter with Ahmadinejad in Tillman Chapel at the Church Center for the United Nations. The Iranian president was in New York to address the opening sessions of the 62nd United Nations General Assembly.

“It was interesting to think of our meeting in the climate created by [Ahmadinejad’s] address at Columbia,” Shelly said. “We certainly had to think about issues of hospitality after that. Bert Lobe [interim executive director of Mennonite Central Committee and one of those who opened the meeting] didn’t address the matter directly, but he said something like ‘We want to have a more gracious conversation – speaking the truth in love, providing a friendlier environment in which to discuss disagreement than some other venues.’”

At Columbia, Ahmadinejad was met with protest signs and a 10-minute berating from Columbia president Lee Bollinger, who had invited him to speak. The interfaith gathering (moved from its original location of St. Bartholomew’s church because of protests) included reading of sacred Scriptures from the Bible and the Qur’an, a panel discussion, and closing blessings from Shelly and from one of Ahmadinejad’s deputies, as well as an address by the Iranian president.

MCC organized the Sept. 26 gathering, with endorsement by American Friends Service Committee, Church of the Brethren General Board, Friends Committee on National Legislation, Mennonite Church Canada, Mennonite Church USA, Pax Christi USA, Sojourners/Call to Renewal, World Conference of Religions for Peace and World Council of Churches Commission of Churches on International Affairs.

This was the third in a series of interfaith conversations focused on establishing a dialogue between people of faith in North America and the people and government of Iran. The discussions began with President Ahmadinejad’s visit to the U.N. last September, when 43 U.S. religious leaders met with him at his hotel. In February, 13 Americans – including Shelly – visited Iran and met with a variety of government, academic and religious leaders. Mennonite Church USA executive director Jim Schrag and Philadelphia pastor Leonard Dow attended the Sept. 26 meeting to represent MC USA along with Shelly.

Ahmadinejad’s words to the ecumenical Christian group on that day meshed with things she had heard him say during the February visit to Iran, Shelly said. “He spoke for 20 minutes, and it was all theology. We live in a time of great temptation and trouble and we aren’t following God’s law; all the prophets, including Jesus, have preached this; if we would follow God’s will, we could solve these problems – these are all favorite themes of Ahmadinejad.

“I don’t doubt he’s a politician,” Shelly added, “but he’s also very religiously focused, very grounded in his faith as a basis for what he’s doing. He’s not the only world leader who perhaps does not live out his faith as well as he could. Religious people make problematic decisions and take problematic positions. I can believe he is religious and still disagree with him politically.”

Shelly had been asked to read several verses of Scripture and offer a closing blessing at the gathering. “How do you represent the spirit of this meeting within the Christian tradition, in this climate of protest? That was an interesting question for me [as I tried to decide what Scripture to read],” she said.

Shelly is teaching both Judaism, Christianity and Islam and a section of Basic Issues of Faith and Life, the senior capstone course, this semester and she brought her question to both classes to get student opinions.

“On Sept. 13, I had taken a group of students to the Rosh Hashanah morning service at the Hebrew congregation in Wichita and on September 22 to Yom Kippur services in the same synagogue, and we were very warmly received both times,” she said. “In BIFL, we are talking about credos – how you summarize your beliefs – and how you think about religions other than your own. So both groups had some interesting ideas.”

She ended up choosing two passages from Romans 12, which speak of not being conformed to the world, showing hospitality and blessing those who persecute you, among other topics.

When Ron Flaming, MCC’s international program director, gave his introduction to the panel discussion, he lit a pottery oil lamp, made by Dick Lehman of Goshen, Ind., to symbolize the commitment of everyone there to pray for each other. “This was the same kind of lamp we presented to President Ahmadinejad in February,” Shelly said. “It was very meaningful to me. I have spoken formally about a dozen times on my trip to Iran and I always take my oil lamp with me and light it.”

After President Ahmadinejad made his opening remarks, five panelists took part in a question and answer time. Panelists included people from Quaker, Catholic and evangelical groups from both the United States and Canada. Following this, President Ahmadinejad also responded to a few questions submitted by invited guests. The gathering closed with comments by Ahmadinejad and Lobe, who moderated the gathering.

As Lobe summarized the meeting, he said, “This conversation occurred in sacred space…. We believe that it is conversation like this, conversation emanating from religious space and out of our particular Christian tradition, that carries the voice and call to dialogue.”

“My agenda is to keep carrying on the conversation with the people we disagree with,” Shelly said. “It’s seeing the humanity in Iranians or any ‘enemy.’ Demonizing others doesn’t do anything to promote peace.”

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the highest ranked Kansas college in the national liberal arts category of U.S. News & World Report’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2008. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at www.bethelks.edu.

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