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CULTURE DIGEST: Former Iranian president speaks at National Cathedral; Baylor study finds Americans mostly religious; …


NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Mohammad Khatami, a Shiite cleric and president of Iran from 1997 to 2005, was invited to visit the United States by United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and embarked on a two-week tour in which he spoke at various venues including the Washington National Cathedral Sept. 7.

Khatami is the highest-ranking Iranian official to be granted a visa to the United States since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and his visit came during a time of high tension between the two nations over Iran’s nuclear technology. Khatami did not meet with any government officials, according to the Bush administration.

He spoke at two Muslim conventions in Chicago before telling more than 1,200 people at the National Cathedral — the seat of the presiding bishop of the Episcopal church’s American branch — that Christians, Muslims and Jews need to “return to their vital, vibrant and common essence,” according to Episcopal News Service.

Three Episcopal bishops denounced Khatami’s visit to the National Cathedral as “ill-conceived and inappropriate,” noting that he has neither renounced Iran’s nuclear ambitions nor the “virulent anti-Semitism of the current regime, known for its Holocaust denial and call for the destruction of the State of Israel.”

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, in a Sept. 7 opinion piece in The Washington Post, noted a “troubling irony” in inviting the former president of the Islamic Republic of Iran to speak at the National Cathedral.

“In his own country, Khatami held office as president … while religious minorities — including Jews, Christians, Sunni and Sufi Muslims, Bahais, dissident Shiite Muslims and Zoroastrians — faced systematic harassment, discrimination, imprisonment, torture and even execution because of their religious beliefs,” USCIRF’s chair and vice chair wrote. “During Khatami’s term, Iranian officials persecuted reformers, students, labor activists and journalists for ‘insulting Islam’ and publishing materials deemed to deviate from Islamic standards.”


The National Cathedral is one of America’s most significant moral symbols, Felice Gaer and Nina Shea wrote, and it has served a unique role as the place where national leaders have been laid to rest and where the nation grieved for 9/11 victims.

“The commission fears that Khatami’s address, in its announced format, jeopardizes this important tradition and may ultimately undermine the cathedral’s critical national role,” Gaer and Shea wrote for the USCIRF.

John Peterson, director of the National Cathedral’s Center for Global Justice and Reconciliation, said he invited Khatami to speak because “he is important as the most moderate Iranian voice willing to discourse with Americans on matters of peace among the Abrahamic faiths.”

Khatami, speaking in Farsi through an interpreter, urged the East and West to work toward reconciliation.

“Great religions, particularly Islam, Judaism and Christianity, can help mankind solve modern problems and challenges,” Khatami said. “History teaches us that whenever the East or West over-relied on one aspect of existence and ignored the other, great calamities engulfed our world.

“Both sides must agree to fairly and impartially re-evaluate and critique modernism and tradition and open the path to a better tomorrow, and to rescue life from the claws of warmongers and violence seekers and ostentatious leaders,” he added.

The former Iranian president also referred to the God of Christians, Jews and Muslims as “one God,” Episcopal News Service reported.

In his visit to Boston, Khatami delivered an address at Harvard University.

BAYLOR STUDY ON RELIGION IN LIMELIGHT — Experts at Baylor University are drawing national attention for a study released Sept. 11 on the state of religion in America. Contrary to claims that the nation is becoming more secular, Baylor found that only 10.8 percent of Americans are unaffiliated with a religion.

“We wanted to do something that most surveys don’t and that is to probe questions that are typically not asked on surveys,” Byron Johnson, professor of sociology at Baylor, said. “So for example, most surveys might ask how often you pray. We want to know whom do you pray to, what was the last thing you prayed about, and why do you pray.

“We know that a lot of Americans believe in God, but we want to know what you think God’s personality is like and how engaged God is in the world,” he added.

Funded by the John M. Templeton Foundation, the study was based on a survey administered by the Gallup organization last fall in which a mailed questionnaire was completed by 1,721 respondents in a random sampling.

Among the findings:

— “Evangelical” may be losing favor as a way Americans describe themselves. About one in three Americans say they belong to denominations that theologians consider evangelical, but only 14 percent of respondents said they would use the term to describe themselves. Many preferred “Bible-believing” or “born-again,” USA Today noted.

— Most Americans are sure their loved ones will go to heaven.

— There is a breakdown of four perceived images of God — an authoritarian God, a benevolent God, a distant God and a critical God — that shapes Americans’ political and moral attitudes more than whether they simply attend church.

For a more comprehensive look at the study, visit www.baylor.edu.

PRESBYTERIAN PUBLISHER PUSHES 9/11 CONSPIRACY — A book released by Westminster John Knox Press, a division of the denominational publisher for the Presbyterian Church (USA), claims the World Trade Center and Pentagon were actually blown up by the Bush administration as justification for the war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Christian Faith and the Truth Behind 9/11” is written by David Ray Griffin, a professor emeritus of philosophy and theology at the United Methodist-affiliated Claremont School of Theology in California. He’s a process theologian who believes God is always evolving, and he holds that Jesus’ real agenda was to overthrow the Roman Empire.

In his book, Griffin questions whether hijackers were even on the planes used in the 9/11 attacks and says hidden explosives caused the Twin Towers to fall, according to The Washington Times.

But what sets his book apart from other conspiracy theory books, The Times noted, is that it calls on churches to get involved in uncovering the truth about the Bush administration’s plan to expand the “American empire.” President Bush had been in office just eight months before the attacks.

“My hope is — and my anticipation is — that people across the religious spectrum of Christianity will respond with outrage,” Griffin said. “Not outrage against me, but outrage against what has been done in the name of democracy and the name of a Christian nation.”

Mark Tooley, director of the United Methodist committee at the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, said the fact that senior mainline church officials would publish such “revisionist history” is a scandal.

“On the left, it is common to explain the Bush administration’s ‘imperial’ policies as the work of whacky ‘Left Behind’ evangelicals who supposedly think that the Second Coming will be precipitated by war in the Middle East,” Tooley said Sept. 8 in an IRD news release. “But those people on the right, if they actually exist, are almost dull when compared to the nuttiness of Professor Griffin and his colleagues in the curia of old-line Protestantism who agree with his theories.”