U.S. religious leaders say Iranians want peace
Feb. 26, 2007
NOTE: Photographs and audio available at http://umns.umc.org.
A UMNS Report By Kathy L. Gilbert*
The Iranian people don't want war with the United States and say a sign of U.S. goodwill would go a long way toward preventing conflict, said a United Methodist leader who just returned from Iran.
"Even with this tragic history we have visited upon Iran for the past 55 years, there is an amazing depth of appreciation and love for the U.S. people," said Jim Winkler, top executive of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, the denomination's social action agency.
"I am hopeful if our government would capitalize on that and offer to sit down and negotiate with the government of Iran, our conflicts could be resolved."
Winkler was part of a 13-member delegation of U.S. religious leaders that visited Iran Feb. 17-25. The group, which included Episcopal, Catholic, Baptist, Evangelical, Quaker and Mennonite traditions, released a statement on the trip during a Feb. 26 news conference in Washington.
"As Christian leaders from the United States, we traveled to the Islamic Republic of Iran at this time of increased tension, believing that it is possible to build bridges of understanding between our two countries. We believe military action is not the answer, and that God calls us to just and peaceful relationships within the global community," said the statement.
The U.S. delegation met with Muslim and Christian leaders, government officials and other Iranian people.
"There have been lots of contacts between Muslim religious leaders and Christian leaders from around the world--and with American Christians--over the years, but this was considered to be significant because it was attached to meetings with government leaders," Winkler said.
"The Iranians don't want war. Every political and religious leader we met with said Islam forbids the possession or development or use of weapons of mass destruction of any kind including nuclear weapons," he said. "They would love to talk to the U.S. if there was but some sign of goodwill."
Next week, the delegation will meet with members of Congress including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John Warner, among others.
"These meetings have been very easy to set up because members of Congress are very interested to hear our report and reflections," said Winkler.
The group's meeting with Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was the first time a U.S. delegation had talked in Iran with an Iranian president since the Islamic revolution in 1979. The meeting lasted more than two hours and covered a range of topics, including the role of religion in transforming conflict, Iraq, nuclear proliferation and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The delegation urged both the U.S. and Iranian governments to:
* immediately engage in direct, face-to-face talks; * cease using language that defines the other using "enemy" images; and * promote more people-to-people exchanges including religious leaders, members of Parliament/Congress, and civil society.
"As people of faith, we are committed to working toward these and other confidence-building measures, which we hope will move our two nations from the precipice of war to a more just and peaceful relationship," the statement said.
The United States and its Western allies have said Iran must halt uranium enrichment as a precondition to talks. They believe Iran is using its nuclear program to produce an atomic weapon, but Iran says it is working to generate electricity.
Ties between the United States and Iran have been broken or poor since Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and held its occupants hostage for 444 days. President Bush has named Iran part of an "axis of evil" and, in recent weeks, his administration has claimed Iran is behind attacks on troops in Iraq-a charge that Iran denies.
Winkler said the Iranian people are keenly aware of their history and say the U.S. overthrow of their elected government in 1953 set U.S.-Iranian relations on a destructive course. "Needless to say, the capture of American hostages contributed very negatively from their side. But then we gave huge support to Saddam Hussein in the 1980-88 war between Iran and Iraq, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iranians."
More information on the delegation can be found at http://mcc.org/iran/delegation/
*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn. Information for this report was provided by the Mennonite Central Committee.
News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
United Methodist News Service Photos and stories also available at: http://umns.umc.org