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Religious delegation going to Iran to talk peace

A U.S. religious delegation is set to visit Iran Feb. 17-25 to meet religious and political leaders, and in the hope of improving relations between the people of Iran and the U.S. 

Akron, Pa., February 14, 2007  A delegation of 13 U.S. religious leaders will visit Iran next week (Feb. 17-25) in the hope of defusing tensions between the U.S. and Iran through dialogue between religious and political leaders. 

During the weeklong visit, the group plans to meet with Christian and Muslim religious leaders, women serving in the Iranian parliament, former Iranian President Mahommad Khatami and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. 

The U.S. delegation will include the Rev. Dr. Shanta Premawardhana, a Baptist, associate general secretary of the National Council of Churches USA (NCC) for Interfaith Relations, and representatives from the Mennonite, Quaker, Episcopal, Catholic and United Methodist churches as well as Pax Christi and Sojourners/Call to Renewal in Washington.     

Last year, 45 religious leaders met with President Ahmadinejad for 75 minutes during his visit to New York on Sept. 20, 2006.

Ahmadinejad has been the target of international criticism for his controversial statements denying the Holocaust and a recent conference in Tehran supporting that view as well as, his condemnation of the state of Israel .  He also has an ongoing dispute with the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency. 

“Yet, we are compelled to go because we believe that dialogue is not only possible but necessary” Premawardhana said. “We, in no way, hope to legitimize the president’s remarks or his views.” 

“As we did at the meeting in New York , we intend to continue to engage the president on his statements regarding the Holocaust,” said Mary Ellen McNish, general secretary of the American Friends Service Committee.   “The Holocaust is a historical fact and one of history’s greatest human tragedies.” 

“(Ahmadinejad’s) statements make it difficult for Americans to believe that a constructive dialogue is possible,” she added.

Premawardhana, who leads the NCC’s work on Interfaith Relations, said  he expects the most productive time in the trip will be in meetings with Muslim and Christian religious leaders.  

“Our primary goal is to engage in dialogue with a variety of Iranians,” said Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) international program director, Ron Flaming.  The trip is being organized by MCC and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in Philadelphia . 


“We are making this trip hoping it will encourage both governments to step back from a course that will lead to conflict and suffering,” said McNish. 

As the rhetoric of war appears to be intensifying on the part of both governments and the fact that neither government is speaking directly to one another about peace, the group hopes their visit will make a positive contribution toward ensuring peace between Iran and the United States . 

  “At the same time there is great risk that our goal to encourage improved relations between the people of Iran and the U.S. will be overshadowed by the controversy surrounding President Ahmadinejad,” Flaming said. 

The delegation will spend most of its time with religious leaders in Tehran , Qom and Isfahan .  They will meet with Iranian Evangelical Protestant leaders, the Archbishop of the Armenian Orthodox Church in Iran and Muslim religious leaders in the religious city of Qom .    

After the visit, the group plans to meet with members of the U.S. Congress to report what they heard leaders in Iran saying and ways to move toward lessening current tensions. 

When several members of the delegation met with members of Congress in October 2006, following the New York meeting with Ahmadinejad, the congressional members encouraged them to continue their efforts and visit Iran if possible. 

“We are hopeful,” Flaming said. “As Christians we are called to talk with those we are in conflict with and move toward forgiveness and reconciliation.  We pray this will open doors to diplomacy.”    

For more information and to set up interviews with delegation members, contact Mark Beach, Mennonite Central Committee, 717-859-1151,

NCC News contact: Daniel Webster, 212-870-2252,

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