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U.S. religious leaders promote peace dialogue in Iran



Jim Winkler, who heads the United Methodist social advocacy agency, is part of the 13-member U. S. religious delegation traveling to Iran.  A UMNS photo by Jay Mallin

A UMNS Report
By Kathy L. Gilbert*

Feb. 14, 2007

A United Methodist leader will be part of a 13-member U.S. religious delegation visiting Iran to act as a bridge of peace between the two countries.

"I think we can be a bridge that doesn't exist otherwise," said Jim Winkler, top executive of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society. "As faith leaders we are dedicated to peace and reconciliation."

Winkler noted the Iraq Study Group appointed by Congress and co-chaired by James A. Baker and Lee H. Hamilton recently recommended the United States develop diplomatic relations with Iran and Syria. "That was rejected by the administration," he said.

"So where do you have avenues for conversations? I think faith leaders and particularly Christian leaders have an opportunity for that kind of dialogue that doesn't otherwise exist."

The trip, scheduled for Feb. 17-25, was organized by the Mennonite Central Committee and American Friends Service Committee. It comes after 45 religious leaders met for 75 minutes with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during his visit to New York last September. United Methodist Board of Church and Society staff member the Rev. Liberato C. Bautista was part of the New York meeting.

The religious leaders have a two-hour meeting scheduled with Ahmadinejad, as well as visits with Iranian Evangelical Protestant leaders, the Archbishop of the Armenian Orthodox Church in Iran and Muslim religious leaders in the city of Qom.

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

Winkler said he would like to tell the Iranian president to "temper his remarks and change his views on a number of things."

He wants the president to know many people in the United States are working to bring about an end to the war in Iraq and trying to bring a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"We are trying to change U.S. foreign policy from one based on confrontation, domination and intimidation to one of peace and cooperation and diplomacy," he said.

When the team meets with Christian and Muslim leaders, the goal is "to listen and hear their realities and views."

"I want to explore with them ways in which we can ensure peace and develop some lasting relationships between us as faith leaders and between our two countries," Winkler said.

Upon returning, the religious leaders plan to meet with members of Congress to report on their conversations. A similar meeting occurred last October after talking with Ahmadinejad in New York. Congressional staff members encouraged them to continue their efforts and visit Iran.

"We are hopeful," said Ron Flaming, the Mennonites' international program director. "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." 

Winkler made a similar trip to Baghdad before the start of the Iraq war.

"Obviously we were not successful in heading off a war in Iraq, but I didn't want to say therefore there was no possibility of doing the same for Iran," he said. "I feel ever more strongly that we ought to do what we can to stop war from taking place."

In addition to Flaming and Winkler, delegation members include Mary Ellen McNish, chief executive of the American Friends Service Committee; Maureen Shea, Episcopal Church USA; Rev. Patricia Shelly, Mennonite Church USA; the Rev. Shanta Premawardhana, National Council of Churches; Joe Volk, Friends Committee on National Legislation (Quakers); Rev. Jeffrey Carr, Sojourners/Call to Renewal; David Robinson, Pax Christi; Geraldine Sicola and Mary Lord, American Friends Service Committee; and Ed Martin and J. Daryl Byler, Mennonite Central Committee.

*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn. The Mennonite Central Committee also provided information for this report.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.


Jim Winkler
"I would like to see what I can do to head off any war."

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