Mahnaz Heidarpour, a lecturer at Qom’s Jami’at al-Zahra, the world’s largest Shia Muslim women’s seminary
MCC Photo/Cheryl Zehr Walker

Mahnaz Heidarpour, a lecturer at Qom’s Jami’at al-Zahra, the world’s largest Shia Muslim women’s seminary, told visitors to the seminary that seeking knowledge is one of the great methods of worship for Muslims, both men and women. She said, “Knowledge is like a wing, spirituality another wing. If you are going to fly, you need both.” Heidarpour is the spouse of Dr. Mohammad Ali Shomali, host of a recent MCC learning tour to Iran. In the photo, left-right: students Fatimah Khalili and Zahra Farzanegan; Amela Puljek-Shank, MCC area director for Europe and the Middle East; and Heidarpour.​

AKRON, Pa. – “The snow has started melting. It is important to rebuild respect toward each other. But it needs time.”

Speaking with a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) learning tour in Tehran in February, partner Archbishop Sebouh Sarkissian of the Armenian Orthodox Church described what he sees as warming relationships between Iran and the West.

Tour members included MCC staff and its U.S. board chair and a representative each from Canadian Mennonite University (CMU), Winnipeg, Man., and Eastern Mennonite University (EMU), Harrisonburg, Va. They explored through multiple meetings and visits if this is indeed a new time in which MCC work in a country often perceived as the enemy can and should be reinvigorated or even expanded.

The U.S. has not had diplomatic relations with Iran since 1979. Canada closed its Tehran embassy in 2012 and there is no Iranian diplomatic presence in Canada.

MCC’s work in Iran aims to promote understanding, friendship and interfaith connections between the people of Iran, Canada and the U.S.

The February learning tour was hosted by Dr. Mohammad Ali Shomali, longtime MCC partner in interfaith peacebuilding and director of the International Institute for Islamic Studies in the city of Qom, capital of the Shia Muslim world.

It was the first time MCC had been able to obtain visas to visit Iran since 2009, and an opportunity for its representatives in the region, Carolyne Epp-Fransen and Gordon Epp-Fransen of Winnipeg, to visit partners there with whom they’ve corresponded over the first year of their assignment.

Most MCC partners in Iran are Muslim and in each conversation, participants expressed mutual respect for each other’s faith, and called for peace.

“Time after time we had opportunity to share our motivation as followers of Christ, to build peace and share the love and teachings of Christ to our neighbors. In return, we were provided significant insight into the teachings of Islam, particularly on teachings of how they relate to other faiths, and on peacemaking,” said Gordon Epp-Fransen.

Dr. Shomali urged the group, “We have to be witnesses to the beauty of peace. If it can be done by people of different faiths, it can be very effective.”

MCC began working in Iran in 1990 in response to a devastating earthquake. Earthquakes happen often and are destructive in Iran. MCC has been part of responses twice since, working with partner organization the Iranian Red Crescent Society.

With the Armenian Orthodox Church, MCC has recently supported the publication of Bibles for children and youth materials to be distributed within the church.

But the focus of MCC’s work in Iran has been peacebuilding through sharing knowledge. This began with exchanges of students from Canada and the U.S. to study in Qom, and sending Iranian students for advanced study in Canada.

The student exchanges led to academic dialogues between Mennonite and Shia Muslim scholars. There have been five such dialogues since 2002 and another is planned for May. These now are led by a network of Mennonite institutions of higher education in Canada and the U.S., with MCC support.

MCC also has supported Iranian students attending EMU’s Summer Peacebuilding Institute (SPI). Two have gone on to receive their master’s degrees in conflict transformation from EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding.

Ten female scholars hope to attend SPI this spring. If visas are granted, this will be the third such visit for scholars who are women, the most recent being when the 10 took classes at CMU in 2012.

MCC and others also are working toward a U.S. visit of Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders from Iran this fall.

The space for nongovernmental organizations to operate in Iran is limited, but MCC views the challenging work as planting seeds that continue to grow, and as “building understanding beyond fear,” according to MCC U.S. Program Director Ruth Keidel Clemens.

“When the nations of the world are at odds with each other, we as Christians are called to speak and show Christ’s love. MCC can do its part in Iran to further connections with people perceived as our enemies, and so we follow God’s leading to try to make that happen,” said MCC U.S. Executive Director J Ron Byler.

Tour members in addition to Byler, Clemens and the Epp-Fransens were J. Daryl Byler, executive director of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at EMU; Ann Graber Hershberger, chair of the Board of Directors of MCC U.S.; Harry Huebner, CMU professor emeritus of philosophy and theology; Amela Puljek-Shank, MCC area director for Europe and the Middle East; Rachelle Lyndaker Schlabach, MCC U.S. Washington Office director; and Cheryl Zehr Walker, MCC U.S. director of communications.