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Interfaith ministry a model for diplomacy
New York City, March 29, 2007 – The tension between Iran and the United States was on the minds of many in the international religious community today. The Rev. Dr. Shanta Premawardhana, associate general secretary for interfaith relations at the National Council of Churches USA, spoke to nearly 50 leaders from religious non-governmental organizations working on issues at the United Nations.
"Tensions can often be creative," said the NCC's Dr. Premawardhana. While he was speaking directly about work between differing religious traditions he was pointing also to the necessity to remain in dialogue when tense issues develop between nations. "We need to commit to being at the table when things are tense," he said.
Premawardhana was one of 13 Baptist, Episcopal, Quaker, Mennonite, Roman Catholic and United Methodist religious leaders from the U.S. who spent a week in Iran last month meeting with religious and governmental leaders there. The delegation was organized by the Mennonite Central Committee which has had relationships in Iran since it engaged in relief work following an earthquake in 1990.
The delegation earlier this week had called for restoring diplomatic relations between Iran and the U.S. In a statement, the delegation said: "The US and Iran should have the same channels as the United States did with the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War to avoid circumstances where misunderstandings, accidents, or other unanticipated events could lead to a military confrontation."
The statement came following Iran's abduction of British sailors and Royal Marines in either Iraqi or Iranian waters.
The religious delegation was engaging in what is called "track two" diplomacy. It is direct, unofficial and person-to-person diplomacy that often develops relationships among constituent leaders in nations that find themselves at odds.
"It is my hope we see the Iranian religious leaders visit this country to continue the dialogue," said Premawardhana, speaking in a conference room overlooking the U.N. complex on Manhattan's east side. The several story office building, owned by the United Methodist Church, is home to many religions and faith groups.
"My second hope is to encourage exchanges between members of the U.S. Congress and the Iranian Parliament," said Premawardhana.
Many questions came from representatives of the Bahai International Community who have grave concerns for Iranian Bahais. Tahirih Naylor, representative of the Bahai U.N. office, asked if there was any encouraging news from the delegation about members of their faith.
"One of the questions we asked was how a theocratic country can make room for religious minorities," reported Premawardhana. But he told the leaders the answers "unfortunately" were eclipsed by the discussions on nuclear weapons development and the Holocaust denial conference held in Iran.
Premawardhana said members of the delegation were making contact with members of Congress reporting on their discussions with the Iranian ayatollahs and Iran's controversial elected leader, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The NCC's Interfaith Relations online ministry, www.seasonofprayer.org, was launched to help various faith groups plan religious services for peace. More resources will be added next week as Jews celebrate Passover and Christians enter Holy Week leading up to the Feast of the Resurrection.
The NCC is the ecumenical voice of America's Orthodox, Protestant, Anglican, historic African American and traditional peace churches. These 35 communions have 45 million faithful members in 100,000 congregations in all 50 states.
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