In case your invitation was lost in the mail, here it is:
An invitation to an international dialogue between religious leaders and political figures:
"Has not one God created us?"
The significance of religious contributions to peace
It is an honor to invite you to participate with religious, cultural, and political leaders in a conversation about the role of religions in tackling global challenges and building peaceful societies at an Iftar -- a dinner to break the Ramadan fast.
In the presence of His Excellency Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran
In the interest of space, I'll shorten the rest. The inviters are listed as His Excellency Miguel D'Escoto Brockmann, President of the General Assembly of the United Nations (the foreign minister of Nicaragua); His Excellency the Rev. Kjell Bondevik, former Prime Minister of Norway and President of the Oslo Center for Peace and Human Rights; and "distinguished religious leaders."
I hate formality, don't you? Let's just re-do the invite in good, old fashioned American style.
Hey gang! Hitler's coming to town and we're throwing him a party! Want to come?
Let's start the focus here with some of the American "religious leaders" involved in this dark little soiree "in the presence of" Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Their organizations are listed as follows: American Friends Service Committee, Mennonite Central Committee, Quaker United Nations Office, Religions for Peace and the World Council of Churches.
Of those (and the Mennonite Central Committee deserves special mention as a leader in the blame-Israel-first crowd), two groups -- Religions for Peace and the World Council of Churches -- involve my own denomination, the United Church of Christ. You may have heard of the UCC in this space before. It is the home denomination for Senator Barack Obama's now ex-church, Trinity UCC in Chicago. For that matter, while Obama has since left Trinity because of his famous dust-up with Trinity's retired pastor the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, he has given no indication that he has decided to leave the larger UCC denomination. He remains still, until he decides otherwise, a UCC member. Obama has said clearly he will make no decision on his future UCC membership until after the election, sending a clear message that the UCC's political antics are simply too much baggage for him to worry about during the campaign. And doubtless hopes that no one notices the remaining connection. This is, apparently, the religious version of voting "present" in the Illinois State Senate, for the Senator has said not a critical word of his denomination's relationship to the Ahmadinejad dinner. Presumably he sees nothing wrong with the dinner just as he saw nothing wrong with his primary pledge to meet with the Iranian leader were he, Obama, to win the White House.
But whether Obama is afraid to step up to the plate with his own denomination or not, someone from the United Church of Christ needs to be directing questions at the UCC's leadership over the church's role in this disgraceful event. Specifically, UCC president the Reverend John Thomas should be responding to the fact he has allowed the name of one of America's oldest and most treasured Protestant faiths -- the faith of the Pilgrims and Jonathan Edwards and the abolitionists -- to be even remotely associated with the groups staging this dinner.
Let's be crystal clear. The inability or outright refusal to denounce this gathering and publicly separate the UCC from both the event itself and its organizers is a failure of leadership from the UCC on one of the most important moral issues of our day.
Most troubling, this is not the first time that the United Church of Christ has been trucking in some fashion with the kind of sentiments expressed by one of the world's leading haters of Jews. As reported here last April, the national leadership of the UCC has come close to completely rupturing the denomination's relationship with the American Jewish community. Its ties to the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, a radical Palestinian Christian group whose leadership has not only questioned the right of Israel to exist but refers to the creation of the Jewish state as "Al Nakba" or "The Catastrophe," have caused intense Jewish anger. In 2007 the UCC was the target of a furious statement issued by eight major American Jewish organizations for what was politely termed imbalance towards Israel. One group went so far as to label the UCC "functionally anti-Semitic."
Particularly puzzling is that way back in October 2005 Thomas and several UCC colleagues reacted sharply and properly to Mr. Ahmadinejad's now infamous boast that he intended to have Israel "wiped off the map." The UCC was thus on record that the remark was "hateful," "violent" and "never acceptable in political discourse." Yet sentiments freshly expressed by the Iranian leader, repeated as recently as August, that "we will witness dismantling of the corrupt regime in a very near future," have only added to the portrait of a murderous tyrant determined to achieve two things: the possession of nuclear weapons and the use of those weapons on Israel. Under these circumstances, the reluctance of the UCC leadership to draw the line at being associated in any way, shape, or form with religious groups that are breaking bread with a man who many see as a modern-day Hitler is startling to say the least.
WHY SHOULD UCC MEMBERS be up in arms about all of this? Here's a snapshot of Mr. Ahmadinejad and life in Iran these days.
* Israel: As mentioned, Mr. Ahmadinejad is on record saying that the State of Israel should be "wiped off the map," is a "stinking corpse" that should be destroyed and is already "on its way to annihilation."
* The Holocaust: Ahmadinejad has stated the Holocaust is "the myth of the massacre of Jews."
* Nuclear weapons: The UN's nuclear agency has now said its efforts to keep Ahmadinejad's Iran from achieving a nuclear capability has reached a "dead end."
* Women's Rights: According to Paul Marshall and Nina Shea of the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom two women in Tehran are "currently due to be stoned to death on allegations of adultery." This is part of a broader assault on women's rights that includes beatings, lashings, and imprisonment if caught advocating for women's issues.
* Gay Rights: The UCC has made much of its stand at the national level supporting same-sex marriage and gay rights in America. Yet In Ahmadinejad's Iran homosexuality is a crime punishable by death, with frequent documented reports of the execution of gays.
* Freedom of Religion: The Christian Post reports that on September 9 -- which is to say barely two weeks ago -- the Iranian parliament has approved a bill that makes "apostasy" a crime punishable by death. The Post also reports that six Protestant pastors have been assassinated, with one executed under the pretense that he was an "American spy."
* State Sponsor of Terrorism: The U.S. State Department terms Iran as the "central banker for terrorism in important regions like Lebanon through Hezbollah in the Middle East, in the Palestinian Territories."
In short, other than the fact he has repeatedly expressed an urge to mass murder Jews, denies the Holocaust, is scheming to get nuclear weapons to accomplish that murder, shrugs at the stoning of women, gives his blessing to hanging gays, thinks non-believers should be executed and bankrolls homicidal maniacs throughout the Middle East, what's the problem with breaking bread with Mr. Ahmadinejad? Did we mention the role of Iran in killing American soldiers in Iraq?
A CALL TO RELIGIONS OF PEACE was greeted with the news that the group would not be releasing the names of attendees for "security reasons," a somewhat odd problem to have for participants if they are simply chowing down with the leader of a country who is passionately devoted to the same ideals. It is very disturbing that repeated requests to the leadership offices of the United Church of Christ to inquire whether there would be personal participation in this dinner by UCC president Thomas, listed as a member of the group's "Council of Presidents" and/or the UCC's Dr. Margaret Blamberg, who is listed as a member of the group's Executive Council, or for that matter any other UCC official, was met with the Nixon-like stonewall.
To be frank, that the leadership of the United Church of Christ would even hesitate to condemn this dinner, to disassociate itself from its sponsors or even question20what kind of company it is keeping is and should be very, very troubling. At a minimum this kind of thing gives the impression to the world that the UCC is OK with the annihilation of Israel, believes Holocaust denying is acceptable conduct for a head of state, believes the rights of women and the lives of gays are just not that big a deal outside the cozy confines of a General Synod meeting in America and that those who quite deliberately are serving as "the central banker" for terrorism -- which is to say the bag man for all manner of Middle Eastern murderers and thugs -- are, well, not the business of a respectable Mainline Protestant church. It also sends a message to members of the UCC who have sons and daughters serving in Iraq. The message? That the national leadership is unconcerned at the idea of either sitting down for a religious meal with the man who is actively trying to kill their sons and daughters -- or of lending the prestige name of the church to those that do.
The spiritual heirs of abolitionists will not be found here.
In the words of one of my church's favorite theologians, Reinhold Niebuhr, who was troubled enough to write in 1940 of the appeasement approach of many liberals to the original Hitler, it is a seriously bad idea not to understand "what it means to meet a resolute foe who is intent upon either your annihilation or enslavement."
Mr. Ahmadinejad has made his intentions clear. Even as this is written Iran is being thrust down a path that can only lead to horror. Whatever the response of the United States government, of the Bush administration or a potential Obama or McCain administration, the role of the United Church of Christ is to be, as Martin Luther King once said, a "drum major for justice."
There is neither justice nor peace in Mr. Ahmadinejad's quest for a second mass murder of the Jews. There is no peace in his relentless quest for nuclear weapons. There is no justice in his brutal treatment of Iranian women or gays. This evening, as the tyrant glides up to the Grand Hyatt, he will be greeted by a protest from men and women of all faiths. Beth Gilinsky, the leader of Women United, has quite remarkably brought under one tent a force of unlikely allies who will be carrying that drum major's baton together. From Iranian women to American Catholics, from Jews to Southern Baptists, from defenders of Traditional Values to the gay Log Cabin Republicans, from Arabs to a member of the Israeli Knesset to members of America's 911 families.
But not, it appears, a single leader representing the United Church of Christ.
And in that, there is shame.
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. A newly elected member of the UCC's Penn Central Conference Board of Directors and a UCC church Council president, he writes from Pennsylvania.
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