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Distorted Dialogue at the Washington National Cathedral

10:15 AM, Mar 5, 2010 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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The closing meeting of a “Christian-Muslim Summit” at the National Cathedral in Washington on Wednesday evening was notable for who wasn't there. The public ceremony ended three days of talks between delegations from the Roman Catholic and Episcopal churches and Sunni and Shia Muslim clerics. The Vatican was represented by Jean-Louis Cardinal Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue; the Episcopalians by Rev. John Bryson Chane, bishop of Washington. The Sunnis were led by Ahmad El-Tayeb, a professor from Al-Azhar, the Islamic university in Cairo. Two Jewish figures were included as observers, but did not speak.

Distorted Dialogue at the Washington National Cathedral

The Shia group was supposed to be headed by former Iranian president Ayatollah Muhammad Khatami, but the clerical regime blocked his trip to America. This fact was noted by National Cathedral canon John L. Peterson, who said “it is one of the unfortunate political realities of our time that President Khatami could not be present.” The National Cathedral hosted Khatami in 2006, when he delivered a speech protested by a large anti-Tehran crowd gathered across the street.

Khatami initiated the process of debate between Christian and Muslim religious authorities that produced the “summit.” But when the Iranian political crisis began last year, after the apparent theft of elections by dictator Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his sponsor Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Khatami sided with the reformers. The Tehran tyrants reportedly feared that if Khatami reappeared in Washington, his sympathy for Iran's so-called Green Movement would be highlighted in Western media. So the National Cathedral had announced that, in Khatami’s place, the Shias would be guided by Ayatollah Mustafa Mohaghegh Damad, a figure little known outside Iran.

Ayatollah Damad is a highly cultivated theologian and disciple of the late Ayatollah Hosein Ali Montazeri, the former designated heir to Ayatollah Khomeini who, as described by Reuel Marc Gerecht, became the leading Iranian clerical critic of the Tehran regime and a powerful ally of the Green protestors. Aside from his Islamic education, Damad holds a doctorate in law from the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium. In Iranian religious affairs, Damad is considered intellectually superior to Khatami. But Damad also backs the Iranian reformers, and he, too, was prevented from appearing at the National Cathedral’s interfaith celebration. So in the end, the principal Shia in the gathering was Ayatollah Ahmad Iravani, who has lived in the United States for 10 years, and teaches at the Catholic University of America. Iravani has also signed on for a series of Catholic-Muslim meetings under the rubric “A Common Word”--the shared term being “God.” Many of the leading participants in “A Common Word” have been fundamentalist Islamists, some aligned with the notoriously reactionary Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, the Arab hate preacher based in Qatar and associated with the radical Muslim Brotherhood.

The Shias appearing at the latest National Cathedral affair also included the Iraqi-born imam Hassan Qazwini of Dearborn, Mich., who leads a clerical clan aligned with Tehran. Hassan Qazwini also managed to get his brother Ali, who has run a Shia mosque in California, into the proceedings. The Qazwinis are nothing if not versatile in their affiliations. Hassan Qazwini endorsed the U.S.-led intervention in Iraq in 2003, and denounced “prejudice” in his Wednesday remarks in Washington. But in his 2007 autobiography American Crescent, he opined, “The war in Iraq was just as messy in my mind as it was on the ground. My Iraqi relatives had real freedom of expression for the first time in their lives--but amid the sort of turmoil where talking is of little use.” Hassan Qazwini also argued disingenuously that American “Muslims didn’t object to Senator [Joseph] Lieberman’s Jewishness [during his 2000 Democratic vice-presidential candidacy], but rather to his unconditional support for the pro-Israeli lobby.”

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