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A Feast with the Beast

Ahmadinejad dines with church officials in New York.

12:30 AM, Oct 2, 2008 • By MARK D. TOOLEY
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IN A FOURTH encounter over two years, American church officials shared an Iftar meal with the visiting Iranian president on September 28 in New York City. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad earlier in the day had delivered his usual rant against Israel and the United States at the United Nations. But hosting religious officials, anxious for dialogue, were undeterred. Nor were they were intimidated by boisterous demonstrators outside their Manhattan hotel, where some placards demanded: "No Feast with the Beast."

Hosts of the evening with Ahmadinejad were the Mennonite Central Committee, the Americans Friends Service Committee (Quakers), the World Council of Churches' UN Liaison Office and Religions for Peace. About 300 religious representatives attended, mostly American church officials, but also including the Council on American-Islamic Relations, leftist Jewish Renewal movement chief Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, a Zoroastrian priest, and former Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Bondevik, a Lutheran minister.

Called "Has Not One God Created Us?", the meal and gabfest "demonstrated both the power and potential of religious leaders contributing to peace," explained a World Council of Churches (WCC) official. "While there were points of contention and clear disagreements, the event reaffirmed that religious traditions insist on dialogue, respect and love for peace making." The discussion question for the evening was: "What does my faith tradition bring to the struggle to eliminate poverty, injustice, global warming and war?"

Moderating the evening with Ahmadinejad was former Indiana Democratic congressman John Brademas, who is also President Emeritus of New York University. "We believe that war is not the solution to the differences that divide peoples," Brademas implored, according to a WCC report. "Dialogue can make a real difference."

Finding left-wing church officials to meet with Ahmadinejad is relatively easy. Finding willing Jewish leaders has been considerably harder. But Rabbi Gottlieb has previously joined in the interfaith outreach to Iran. "Torah councils us that no matter what problems face us, we are to engage in solutions through dialogue, reconciliation and peace building measures," she opined, according to the WCC. "Dialogue brings many perspectives together, gives special attention to minority opinions and must be conducted by treating everyone with respect."

Some participating church groups published reports of their evening with Ahmadinejad, but they focused on their own comments, while mostly only paraphrasing the Iranian president. According to the WCC, Ahmadinejad addressed the "commonalities of religions, the fundamental place of justice, and the essential role religion plays in the spiritual, moral and legislative fabric of society," while stressing the "dire situation facing the world and called with urgency for religious groups to contribute to peace building."

But according to Reuters, Ahmadinejad specifically denied that he is anti-Semitic, instead insisting he only opposes the "Zionist regime." During his earlier UN speech, he had denounced "Zionist murderers" and purported Zionist influence on world finance. "As soon as anyone objects to the behavior of the Zionist regime, they're accused of being anti-Semitic, whereas the Jewish people are not Zionists," Ahmadinejad reportedly told the religious officials. "Zionism is a political party that has nothing to do with Jewish people." He also denounced "selfish powers" that try to dominate the globe and oppose Iran's supposedly peaceful nuclear program. "A lot of it was very challenging," Rabbi Gottlieb admitted afterwards to Reuters. She said Ahmadinejad had not specifically denied the Holocaust to the religious officials but had minimized it in his description of World War II.