AMMAN, Jordan – In Washington, D.C., in mid-April, a handful of U.S. lawmakers concerned about the Bush administration’s harsh rhetoric toward Iran and the prospect of U.S. military action introduced legislation calling instead for direct diplomatic talks.
Meanwhile at a military parade just outside Tehran, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared that, “Iran is the most powerful and independent nation in the world,” and that it would react forcefully to any attack on Iranian soil.
Of the three remaining U.S. presidential candidates, only Barack Obama favors direct unconditional talks with Iran.
Even in Ottawa, once thought to be a moderating force in East-West relations, tensions between Canada and Iran have spiked.
When nations are threatening rather than talking to each other, organizations such as Mennonite Central Committee can sometimes help build bridges of understanding. In light of the growing hostility, MCC plans to redouble its advocacy efforts and increase people-to-people contacts with Iran. Indeed, face-to-face relationships have been the core of nearly two decades of MCC work in Iran.
When a major earthquake in 1990 killed more than 30,000 people and destroyed mountain villages in Iran’s northwestern provinces, MCC’s first response was to send people, not money. Eventually, MCC helped build 15 health houses – simple primary care centers – for damaged villages and began a long-term partnership with the Iranian Red Crescent Society.
In 1998, MCC started a student exchange with the Imam Khomeini Education and Research Institute (IKERI) in Qom – the center of religious training in Iran. Four American couples have studied Farsi and Islam at IKERI, while developing friendships with Iranians. During the same period, two Iranians have done Ph.D. work at the Toronto School of Theology and learned to know Mennonites in Ontario.
The student exchange has built a foundation for three academic conferences between Mennonite theologians and Shia Muslim scholars, in 2002, 2004 and 2007.
MCC’s Iran program gained high visibility in 2006, when MCC organized the first of three meetings between President Ahmadinejad and religious leaders from Canada and the United States. These conversations have focused on issues that divide our nations as well as ways that people of faith can play constructive roles in building trust. As a starting point, religious leaders have urged Presidents Ahmadinejad and George W. Bush to stop using rhetoric that defines the other using “enemy” language.
MCC’s Iran program has two primary goals: to promote understanding and friendship between the people of Iran, Canada and the United States; and to promote peace between the governments of the countries.
In our travel to Iran as MCC regional representatives we have found Iranians – particularly young adults – to be eager for conversation and for relationships with the West that are built on mutual respect.
MCC has increasingly emphasized people-to-people contact as a way of countering misunderstandings and negative images in the media.
In January 2008 participants in an MCC Learning Tour spent two weeks in Iran and returned to speak in churches and schools in Canada and the United States.
In late August an Iranian religious leaders’ delegation – including Muslims, Christians and Jews – plans to visit the United States. MCC, Eastern Mennonite University, American Friends Service Committee and several other organizations will host this delegation.
In October a delegation of Mennonite educators plans to visit Iran to explore possible professor and student exchanges between Mennonite and Iranian universities.
In mid-March the MCC Peace Committee* gathered in Akron, Pa., to reflect on the meaning of MCC’s Iran program and consider next steps at a time when the threat of war is never far from the surface.
Iran is home to the biblical story of Esther. In reflecting on the meaning of MCC’s Iran program at a time of hostile relations between governments, one Peace Committee member said that perhaps MCC has also come to this place “for such a time as this.”
*The Peace Committee serves the MCC International Program Department as a resource for ethical and theological reflection. It consists of representatives from MCC’s constituency, invited to serve given their active involvement and expertise in peace issues.
J. Daryl Byler and spouse, Cindy Lehman Byler, are MCC representatives for Iran, Iraq, Jordan and Palestine. They are based in Amman, Jordan.