Reported and Photographed from New York City by Deena Guzder.
Also published in the FEZANA Journal.
President Bush has declared Iran to be part of the “Axis of Evil” and administration officials have said no options—including military options—are off the table. In the midst of this fiery standoff between Washington and Tehran, religious peace activists recently met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to discuss the role of religions in tackling global challenges and building peaceful societies. The Iftar, a dinner to break the Ramadan fast, was held at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York City in late September by American peace activists eager to fill the vacuum created by their own government’s opposition to diplomacy with Iran. A hundred guests were invited to attend the dinner that was held despite hordes on 42nd Street waving Israeli flags and signs demanding “No Feast with the Beast” and “No Nukes for Kooks” while chanting “The Hyatt hosts terrorists!” The rally also drew antiwar protesters who brought their own posters: “War is Not Healthy for Children and Other Living Things.”
The dinner was co-sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee, Mennonite Central Committee, Quaker United Nations Office, Religions for Peace, and World Council of Churches – United Nations Liaison Office in cooperation with the Permanent Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations. The conversation was the fourth in a series of high-level bridge-building and reconciliation efforts that have helped to foster mutual understanding between Iranian and American peoples, nations and religious traditions. “It is our hope that as religious and political leaders, this communal meal and exchange of views will enable us to explore faith perspectives for dealing with global issues such as poverty, war and prejudice while deepening mutual understanding,” said a statement released by the Sponsoring Committee.
Pacifist religious groups billed the evening as an interfaith dialogue on “the significance of religious contributions to peace.” The evening started with prayers delivered by Roman Catholic, Muslim and Zoroastrian religious leaders. The prayers were followed by an excerpt from the PBS documentary “Talking to Iran” (2007). In the documentary, producer Jamila Paksima revisits her birth country of Iran with American spiritual leaders hoping to promote dialogue on such explosive issues as nuclear proliferation, the Iraq war, and the holocaust. The 13-member team met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, top officials in the government, and several of the ayatollahs who have a powerful influence on government policy. “When political leaders mess up, religious leaders ought to be here to go and build up the people, build up relationships, and bring the conversation up the high moral ground,” said one of the U.S. delegates, Rev. Dr. Shanta Premawardhana, who represented Episcopalians, Methodists, Evangelicals and dozens of other denominations.
Screening of the documentary was followed by a panel discussion moderated by John Brademas, a former US Democratic congressman from Indiana and president emeritus of New York University. The panelists were asked to address the question “What does my faith tradition bring to the struggle to eliminate poverty, injustice, global warming and war?” One of the evening’s most moving comments came from Rabbi Lynne Gottlieb, founder of the Jewish-Muslim Peace Walk. “Our religion teaches to love your neighbor as you love yourself,” said Gottlieb. “Torah encourages face-to-face reconciliation as the path for peace” she added. Gottlieb said she attended the dinner because it is important for religious groups to create a forum for engagement in the absence of formal diplomatic talks between the Iranian and the US governments. “We were all there for the sake of pressuring the US government to engage in direct dialogue and conversation,” she said. Earlier this year, Gottlieb became the rare American rabbi to visit the Islamic Republic.
Gottlieb’s remarks were followed by Nihad Awad, Executive Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). “My faith honors peace-makers and peace-seekers,” said Awad. “Has not one God created us all?” he asked. “Yes, and God wants us to work together.” The Rev. Kjell-Magne Bondevik, former Prime Minister of Norway and President of the Oslo Center for Peace and Human Rights spoke about “sound stewardship.” He said, “The commandment of love is the driving force to fight against poverty and humiliation.”
Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, the President of the United Nations, received a resounding applause for his remarks. “Our world is very, very sick . . . that sickness is called selfishness and selfishness is the absence of love,” said Brockmann. “We must recognize each other as brothers and sisters because all of our religions have the law of love as a very important guiding principle.” He added, “There are many things accounting for selfishness, especially capitalism because capitalism is not only an economic system but also a culture that promotes moral individualism.” Brockmann ended by lamenting the dire poverty of half of humankind as “totally unacceptable” and urging the audience to be “instruments of God’s peace and love.”
Mennonite and Quaker speakers said they were breaking bread with the President of Iran in the spirit of Jesus Christ and they evoked Matthews 5.3-12: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” They asked Ahmadinejad to consider the following four steps for peace: (1) stop denying the Holocaust; (2) clarify that Israel requires a political not military solution; (3) support religious tolerance since true faith cannot be forced; and (4) offer transparency about Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressed the audience and said that “the way to save man is to turn to God by upholding kindness, justice and caring on with dignity.” He continued, “Many people are dying because man chose to divorce itself from religion . . . the holiest center of humanity, the family, is falling apart because of inequality, drugs and terrorism . . . these are not related to our religious teachings.” While Ahmadinejad acknowledged that several million Jews had perished during World War II, he quickly said “Europeans, not Muslims, caused it.” Instead of directly addressing the concerns raised by the Sponsoring Committee, Ahmadinejad lambasted “western hypocrisy” and asked “Who is stockpiling more weapons than any other country right now?” and “Why is anyone who objects even a little bit to the Zionist regime called a terrorist and anti-Semite?” Ahmadinejad went on to say “today we are victimized by a country that has built the atomic bomb and even used it; a country that has refused environmental plans; and, a country that keeps abusing its veto power in the United Nations.” Ahmadinejad did not take questions before rushing to catch a plane back to Teheran.
Ahmadinejad’s remarks left much to be desired. At no point did Ahmadinejad renounce violence as a political tool or promise transparency about his country’s nuclear program. Ahmadinejad also failed to address concerns about human rights abuses within Iran and his previous bellicose statements towards Israel. Yet, the interfaith dinner succeeded in providing a forum for airing grievances and acknowledging differences as a step towards peaceful reconciliation.
While pundits speak of the “Religious Right,” the faith-based peace activists who met with Ahmadinejad are part of an underreported group of Americans who are progressive because they are religious. These peace activists have helped resuscitate the American discourse on religion by engaging in faith-based activism far removed from the most bombastic—and often least representative—voices of self-proclaimed “holy warriors” who brandish weapons in the name of their God(s). Throughout time and across geography, adherents of pacifist religious traditions have sacrificed their own welfare to help others in the name of a higher being, a higher purpose. The interfaith dinner honored religious adherents who are concerned for this world, not just the next. While the Republican propaganda machine and vituperative pundits are only too happy to exploit religious differences for their own purposes, peace activists who broke bread with the “enemy” chose to honor religion’s rich history of advocating for peace even when the war drums have already started beating.