When Philadelphia pastor Leonard Dow was invited to participate in a dialogue between U.S. and Canadian religious leaders and Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he accepted because he felt that the gathering had implications for his own work.
“What’s going in Iran affects Philadelphia,” says Dow.
The event was convened by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and supported by a number of organizations including the American Friends Service Committee, Mennonite Church USA and the Church of the Brethren General Board.
More than 100 people gathered in New York at the the Church Center for the United Nations to listen to President Ahmadinejad and ask questions on topics ranging from the Holocaust to Iran’s nuclear program.
The September 2007 meeting is a part of an on-going effort by MCC to facilitate discussion between Christians in the United States and the people and government of Iran. MCC began its work in Iran in 1991, following an earthquake in the region.
Dow, who was invited to participate by Mennonite Church USA, says that the dialogue helped him to better understand the issues surrounding U.S. foreign policy as well as Christian-Muslim relations, issues which relate to his neighborhood. Dow is African-American and pastors a multiracial congregation, and notes that the numbers of Arab Muslims as well as African-American Muslims is growing in cities across the United States. He says that religious diversity is increasing all around the city– in west Philadelphia, Germantown, and even at the corner of Howell and Landgon, where Oxford Circle Mennonite Church (a Franconia Conference Partner in Mission congregation) is located. Imams and mosques can now be seen in the community working on housing, food programs and other justice initiatives traditionally served primarily by churches.
“The Muslim community here is keeping a close eye on how we interact with those they would affirm as their brothers,” says Dow. With the rumors of war and U.S. intervention in Iran comes another concern: the possibility of a military draft. Dow has a number of teenagers in his congregation and wonders what would happen to them if there were another war.
“I hope that we won’t go to war,” he says. “That another life will not have to be lost . . . That our young people in our community who do not even know who the president of Iran is, will not be placed in a position where they’ll be called to kill.”
For Dow, having a better understanding of these issues “is very beneficial” but that doesn’t mean that he agrees on all points.
“I don’t think that just because one is in dialogue, one is in agreement,” he says. Dow wants to make it clear that participation in these discussions is not an affirmation of any of Iran’s policies, but hopes instead that such meetings might help to reduce the possibility of war.
“If we are interacting, if we are conversing, there’s hope. I believe the church, not the state, has the ultimate responsibility of moving towards that hope.”
“We really do have to try to reduce the lunacy of a war,” he adds. “Those conversations are a piece of the puzzle that would reduce the likelihood of the U.S. and Iran entering into a conflict.”
Dow says that given his limited interaction with President Ahmadinejad–a four-hour event–he can’t speak with certainty to the charges leveled against the man, but says that he’s not a lunatic. But the event did allow participants to ask very pointed, strong questions and raise criticisms related to the Holocaust, the damaging language Ahmadinejad uses to refer to Israel, nuclear proliferation and human rights violations.
Prior to attending the meeting, Dow was concerned about how his presence at the meeting might be interpreted, and how easily it could be misunderstood. But he hopes there will be more opportunities for people to sit and talk about international issues, issues that are being played out in the streets of Philadelphia and other cities around the United States.
“We can’t just wait to do what’s popular, we have to be there standing in the gap. We’re a peace church; if we’re not there, who else is going to be there? If not us, who? If not now, when?”
photos by Melissa Engle/MCC