U.S. Catholic leaders meet with President of Iran at UN

Even as the war drums beat louder and the rhetoric remains heated, U.S. Catholic leaders joined an interfaith effort to defuse tensions between Iran and the United States. The dialogue between North American religious leaders and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, following close on the heels of Ahmadinejad's controversial appearance at New York's Columbia University, took place at the United Nations on September 26 and was focused on improving East-West relations through informal diplomacy.

Ahmadinejad, visiting New York to attend the United Nations 62nd General Assembly session, sat down with a delegation of U.S. religious leaders for the third time in the past year. The first meeting happened last year, also at the UN, followed by a February 2007 visit to Iran by U.S. religious leaders at the invitation of the Iranian president, who received them at the Presidential Palace, the first U.S. citizens to be welcomed there in over 25 years.

These dialogues have included frank discussions on the Holocaust, nuclear weapons, the role of religion in peacemaking, Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the use of hostile rhetoric.

"We are deeply concerned about the prospect of war with Iran, but I left today's meeting hopeful because of the statements made by President Ahmadinejad regarding the renunciation of war and the quest for peace," stated Joseph Fahey, professor of religious studies at Manhattan College and a member of the Catholic delegation. "This meeting was an attempt to build bridges with Iran despite the generally hostile reception President Ahmadinejad received here in New York City. We strongly believe that only through formal and informal diplomacy and respect for international law can there be peace between Iran and the U.S."

The Catholic delegation was organized by Pax Christi USA, the national Catholic peace movement, and included theologians, clergy and religious, and leaders of national Catholic organizations. The meeting, hosted by the Mennonite Central Committee, took place amidst heightened security at the Church Center at the UN and was billed as a "time of dialogue and prayerful reflection among the children of Abraham."

"Our message today, both in our words and by our actions, is that our country and our political leaders need to engage Iran in respectful and meaningful dialogue in order to overcome the historical enmity that has existed between our two nations," said Dave Robinson, Pax Christi USA Executive Director. "We need our leaders to put aside the threats of war and to engage now—to have what President Ahmadinejad asked for today: sincere and fair negotiations."

Jean Stokan, Pax Christi USA Policy Director, stated that now is the time for U.S. citizens to start encouraging their elected officials to push for a policy of negotiation with Iran.

"It is our responsibility—the responsibility of people of faith in the U.S.—to work now to assure that the Bush Administration chooses a diplomatic path, not a military one, in dealing with our differences with Iran. The alternative is simply unacceptable."

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