Visit of Iranian Religious Leaders and Scholars to the U.S.

The Iranian delegation, like the U.S. delegation to Iran in June of 2003 (in which our Center participated) included representation from each of the three Abrahamic faiths: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim.

April 21- May 21, 2005

The Iranian delegation, like the U.S. delegation to Iran in June of 2003 (in which our Center participated) included representation from each of the three Abrahamic faiths: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim. In addition to visiting a number of Islamic centers (both Shi’ah and Sunni) and various places of worship, the delegates also participated in a two-day conference at Catholic University on “Islam and the Political Order.”

Among the highlights of the visit was a luncheon co-chaired by ICRD and the U.S. Institute of Peace that involved the delegation and an impressive cross-section of American Muslims in a stimulating discussion of itjihad, a long-dormant Islamic concept in which the application of religious principles to contemporary problems is periodically reexamined in light of significant changes in the external environment. (The concept fell into disuse quite some time ago as Islam grew increasingly defensive and protective of traditional values under the onslaught of colonialism and various other outside forces). Thoughtful input was provided by both sides, with the American Muslims making a strong case for why the concept should be revived.

Another highlight was an inspiring encounter between the Iranians and eight well-versed Members of Congress. Over the course of a two hour discussion, all of the hot-button issues were discussed: nuclear weapons, Israel, Hiz’bullah, the plight of religious minorities, and the like. On the nuclear question, the Iranians noted that they are merely implementing the same peaceful nuclear capability that the United States had encouraged the Shah to develop and that they are doing so in compliance with the rights of any signatory to the non-proliferation treaty. Further, they argued that their religion prohibits the use of weapons of mass destruction because of their indiscriminate effects on innocent civilians. Although the text of the fatwa supporting this stance (attributed to the late Ayatollah Khomeini) has yet to be seen by Western observers, it is widely believed that Khomeini felt such weapons to be theologically impermissible. It is also probably worth noting that Ayatollah Ali Khameini, Khomeini’s successor, has expressed similar sentiments.

As evidence of Iran’s allegiance to the above prohibition, the delegation pointed to the fact that their country did not respond in kind when the Iraqis used chemical weapons against them in the Iran-Iraq War (from which more than 50,000 Iranian casualties resulted). Although ICRD research bears this out, it is unclear as to whether or not Iran actually had such weapons in its possession at the time. If they did not, it appears likely that the choice not to develop them may, in fact, have been driven by a religious aversion to their use. In any event, such weapons could have easily been produced in relatively short order or readily obtained on the black market.

When one Congressman pointedly asked the leader of the delegation if Israel has a right to exist, his response was, “Of course, Israel has a right to exist, just as we have a right not to recognize it.” In response to a related question regarding Hiz’bullah (the Iranian-supported organization that has committed a number of terrorist acts against Israel) the Ayatollah replied that Hiz’bullah only came into being to resist Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and that when Israel has completely vacated Lebanon, Hiz’bullah will confine itself to political activities. (While most observers are under the impression that Israel has already vacated Lebanon, there remains a 10 square kilometer area in the Golan Heights known as Shebaa Farms that Israel occupies and about which there is lingering dispute. Many observers believe this area belonged to Syria rather than Lebanon, but Lebanese and Syrian officials insist that Syria officially gave the Farms to Lebanon in 1951. It is reported that there are land deeds attesting to such a transfer).

In response to a question regarding the status of minority religions in Iran, the delegates pointed out that theirs is one of the few Islamic countries in the world that protects minority religions in its constitution, specifically Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism. The Baha’i faith, which originated in Iran in the 1840s as a reformist movement within Shi’a Islam, is seen to be a heretical, “counterrevolutionary” sect by the government; and although individual Baha’is supposedly enjoy the same rights as anyone else, their faith tradition does not enjoy the rights of a “minority religion.”

Ordinarily a claim that some group or organization is protected under the constitution might elicit a cynical response; but it does appear that the lot of the minority religions is improving. For example, the Iranians indicated that the government had recently equalized the payment of “blood money” across religions. (This is money paid to a victim’s family by an offender who has either wittingly or unwittingly caused harm to the victim. When I was in Iran two years ago, the blood money paid to families of minority religions was half of that paid to Muslim families). Further, in a later private conversation with the Christian and Jewish members of the delegation, they indicated that the minority religions had collectively received one million dollars from the government the previous year (out of the President’s discretionary fund) and that the Parliament had just doubled that amount for the current year. They further indicated that this funding, which is intended for the upkeep and repair of churches, synagogues, religious hospitals and the like, is scheduled to increase even more in the years ahead.

All in all, both sides gave as good as they got, but the Iranians enjoyed an advantage to the extent that they could point to the perception of a double standard in American’s seeming indifference to Israel’s nuclear capabilities and in its failure to hold Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia, to the same standard of accountability in their treatment of minority religions. To their credit, the Congressmen responded as well as anyone could in light of current realities. For example, one of them indicated that he had sponsored legislation to address the lack of religious freedom in Saudi Arabia. Although the legislation didn’t go anywhere, it at least showed a noteworthy level of concern for the problem.

The above discussion, like that with the American Muslim community, represented a significant step forward in terms of establishing relationships, clarifying perceptions, and providing a better understanding of the issues that divide. In short, the stage has been set for taking this effort to a higher level.

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