WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is urging five religious organizations to cancel a Sept. 25 dinner with Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in conjunction with his visit to the United Nations.
The American Friends Service Committee, Mennonite Central Committee, World Council of Churches, Quaker United Nations Office and Religions for Peace are set to host an “international dialogue” on the topic “Has Not One God Created Us? The Significance of Religious Contributions to Peace” at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Manhattan.
“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,” the invitation to the event said.
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and a USCIRF commissioner, is among those scheduled to speak at a rally against the dinner Sept. 25 outside the Grand Hyatt on East 42nd Street starting at 5:30 p.m. The rally, which is to include a number of organizations such as the Jewish Action Alliance and the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, also is meant to protest Ahmadinejad’s presence at the United Nations and to oppose Iran’s nuclear weapons program and threats against Israel.
USCIRF, which recently warned of Iran’s plans to impose the death penalty for people convicted of so-called apostasy, wrote a letter to each of the organizations, stating that the invitation and the platform for Ahmadinejad would be counterproductive to the groups’ peace goals.
“President Ahmadinejad has manipulated such dialogues repeatedly into a platform for spreading hatred,” Felice D. Gaer, USCIRF’s chair, wrote. “He hosted some of the world’s most notorious deniers of the Holocaust, racists and anti-Semites at a 2006 conference questioning the well-established facts of the Holocaust and calling for the destruction of a member-state of the United Nations.
“The only accomplishment of such an invitation would be to burnish the Iranian leader’s legitimacy and cleanse his reputation as a purveyor of hate,” she added in the letters dated Sept. 19.
In addition to the religious leaders, The Forward, a New York-based American Jewish newspaper, reported Sept. 17 that the president of the United Nations General Assembly also is expected to attend the private dinner with Ahmadinejad. Miguel D’Escoto Brockman is a Catholic priest from Nicaragua who is a vocal critic of the United States, the newspaper said.
Also scheduled to break the Ramadan fast with the Iranian president, The Forward said, is a former Norwegian prime minister, Kjell Magne Bondevik, who presides over the Oslo Center for Peace and Human Rights.
USCIRF expressed dismay at the timing of the meeting, with Gaer noting that “the invitation to President Ahmadinejad comes amid a rapidly accelerating deterioration of religious freedom and other human rights in Iran, including prolonged detention, torture and executions often based on the religion of the accused.”
USCIRF noted: “It is disturbing enough that a leader who has worked so ruthlessly to close off channels for free expression at home should be given an opening to expound his views here.”
The Iranian Parliament, the commission noted, is finalizing a new penal code that would mandate the death penalty for anyone in the nation convicted of leaving Islam. For that and a number of other grievances, USCIRF continues to recommend that the U.S. State Department include Iran on its list of “countries of particular concern.”
“We are concerned that your ‘dialogue’ will be merely another platform for President Ahmadinejad to espouse an ideology of intolerance,” Gaer wrote to each of the five religious organizations. “The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom would recommend that this event be canceled and that in any event you withdraw your organization’s co-sponsorship.”
The Institute on Religion and Democracy, an ecumenical alliance of U.S. Christians, said Sept. 18 that representatives of the Episcopal Church and other mainline denominations plan to attend the dinner with Iran’s president. Such representatives visited Iran last year and hosted a similar event for Ahmadinejad with the National Council of Churches last fall in New York, IRD said.
“These confused prelates will undoubtedly minimize, if not ignore, the evils of the Iranian police state theocracy that brutalizes all who do not share its particular brand of Shiite Islam,” Mark Tooley, executive director of United Methodist Action, said in the IRD news release. “They are more worried about what the U.S. might do to Iran than what Iran’s deranged president, filled with apocalyptic dreams of destroying the U.S. and Israel, might do to the world.
“The problem is not only the personality of one man, rather than the consistent policies of a 28-year-old repressively theocratic regime,” he added. Tooley said he hopes organizers will confront Iran’s threats to obliterate Israel as well as the country’s harsh treatment of religious minorities.
“It will be interesting to see if the religious leaders confront Ahmadinejad on his Holocaust denials and nuclear ambitions, or merely ‘engage’ him with pleasantries and anti-American rhetoric,” Tooley said.
Compiled by Baptist Press staff writer Erin Roach.