NOT ALL OF Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's encounters in New York during his recent trip were testy. The Shiite theocrat had what the New York Times called a "warm, even friendly exchange" with 150 church officials at the United Methodist Women's Church Center for the United Nations.
One sponsor, the Mennonite Central Committee, called the gathering a "time of dialogue and prayerful reflection among the children of Abraham." A Mennonite official further explained that "mutual respect and graciousness in this conversation blunts the demonization which is part of the current rhetoric of both governments."
The meeting is the third between Ahmadinejad and his new church friends. Forty five of them had met the Iranian during his last New York visit a year ago. And 13 church officials saw him in Iran in February.
Seemingly, the church officials are fascinated and perplexed by the chief of Iran's Islamist police state. Unlike most of them, he has uncompromising theological views, especially about the end-times, about which he shares freely. Perhaps the apocalyptic dogma is bracing to these liberal religionists, who might be inwardly bored with their own mantras about endless tolerance.
"We haven't reached the point of hard truth-telling," explained United Methodist Women's Division chief Harriet Jane Olson, as reported in her news release. "But this dialogue may help to de-escalate the language of hostility, which is a necessary part of building bridges."
Olson opened the meeting by telling Ahmadinejad about the history of the New York-based and politically active United Methodist Women. "We express our personal piety by taking action to make the world more loving and just," Olson carefully recounted to her Iranian visitor. "We stand with the women and children of Iraq . . . Israel . . . Palestine . . . the United States."
Official co-sponsors of this latest bridge building included Jim Wallis' Sojourners, the World Council of Churches, Pax Christi, the Church of the Brethren, and the American Friends Service Committee (Quakers). But the assembled church officials came from a much larger swatch of Mainline Protestants, Catholics, and liberal evangelicals. Apparently Jews were invited but none were willing to participate.
"My heart was broken that there was so little support from other religions to be here," Quaker official Mary Ellen McNish told the Times. "If we don't walk down this path of dialogue, we're going to end up in conflagration." Ahmadinejad reportedly refused to attend if Bahais, whom Iran persecutes, were present with the church officials.
According to the news service of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which sent three officials, the two hour meeting started with readings from the Book of Romans and the Koran. Five pre-selected church officials (a Quaker, a Catholic, a Baptist, an Anglican, and an ecumenical official) then peppered Ahmadinejad with questions about human rights, Israel, the Holocaust, and nukes.
A Mennonite official implored Ahmadinejad to disavow any perceived hostile plans towards Israel. Although some have "interpreted" the Iranian's public comments as threatening Israel, "This does not match what some of us have heard you say privately, where you stated that there is not a military solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict," the Mennonite told the Iranian. "If it is not your intention to destroy Israel, for the sake of understanding, for the sake of peace, for the sake of a bridge, we urge you to clearly and publicly say so."
Ahmadinejad apparently declined the opportunity. The Mennonite news account described him as preferring to talk about how "God asked people to build a world of brotherhood, peace and justice; and that prophets such as Abraham and Moses encouraged humans to be kind and just." He also deflected awkward questions by rhapsodizing about the Mehdi's return, which will establish earthly justice. A Presbyterian report described Ahmadinejad's account of the Shiite messiah's reign as including a "succession of the prophets of Judaism, Jesus, the apostles and saints, and finally Muhammad as a caravan heralding a consistent message of God's grace and mercy, and a call to all people to worship and serve God in all realms of human life."
None of the church accounts record any particular reaction by the church leaders to Ahmadinejad's Islamic eschatology. One Presbyterian official instead declared: "This kind of dialogue is a necessary step towards being the reconciling community that Christ calls us to be."
The Times described Ahmadinejad's smiles as sometimes turning to a grimace during unwelcome questions, with him "conceding nothing" and changing the topic back to the United States.
"Who are the ones that are filling their arsenals with nuclear weapons?" Ahmadinejad asked, according to the Times. "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?"
One of Ahmadinejad's questioners was Fuller seminary professor and liberal Baptist Glenn Stassen, who asked him if he would guarantee "no violence against Israel" if the United States pledged not to attack Iran. After taking a three minute break, according to the Times, the Iranian simply denounced the United States and the "Zionist regime" for their possession of nuclear weapons.
"In the Middle East, who's the one who has 200 nuclear warheads?" Ahmadinejad asked, according to the United Methodist report. "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."
Stassen, a prominent voice on the Evangelical left and a critic of U.S. war policies, is reportedly preparing a statement from liberal evangelicals that will advocate broader U.S. dialogue with Iran. Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad left the church meeting with some gifts. A Mennonite official presented him with a children's book called "Let's Plant a Garden," and also a dove lapel pin, as an encouragement for him to "work for peace."
But Ahmadinejad left the United Methodist Women's Church Center at the United Nations with much more than a book and a pin. He knows he has reliable American friends who will oppose any strong policies aimed at his regime, while expressing limited concern about his intemperate plans towards the United States and Israel.
Mark D. Tooley directs the United Methodist committee at the Institute on Religion and Democracy.