More than 300 religious and political leaders met in New York in September to break bread with an unlikely dinner guest: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. At Ahmadinejad’s request, the leaders gathered for a dialogue during a celebration of Ramadan. Representatives from the Mennonite church, the World Council of Churches, New York-based Religions for Peace, and the American Friends Service Committee attended the dinner.
Accepting the invitation drew sharp criticism, however, from Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “Their breaking bread with President Ahmadinejad is a perversion of the search for peace and an appalling betrayal of religious values,” Foxman said in a press release. The religious leaders in attendance disagree, arguing that their religious values compel them to dialogue with everyone, even Ahmadinejad. “Jesus ate with lepers and with tax collectors, and in the U.S. right now, Iran would be in that category,” Arli Klassen, executive director of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), told Religion News Service.
For the first time, this year’s meeting included several former members of the U.S. Congress, something Daryl Byler, the MCC representative for Iran, Iraq, Jordan, and Palestine, hopes to see more of in the future. “The hope is that more policymaker-to-policymaker talks will happen, and eventually U.S.-Iranian diplomatic relations will be restored,” Byler told Sojourners. “Face-to-face conversations allow us to talk about differences as well as remember that we share much in common.”