COMMENTARY: An Exercise in Spineless Christian Diplomacy

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c. 2007 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) “Well, there you go again.”

With those words hurled at Jimmy Carter during a presidential debate, Ronald Reagan probably won the White House in 1980. With a single stinging barb, Reagan defined Carter’s views and policies as worn-out and wrong-headed, out of step with the majority of the American public.

Reagan’s withering comment can also be applied to the 13 U.S. Christian leaders who visited Iran for eight days in February. The highlight was a 21/2-hour meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Alas, there they go again.

The delegation of Methodists, Episcopalians, Baptists, Quakers, Mennonites, evangelicals and Catholics sadly echoes similar Christian delegations of the past who met with despots and dictators. The U.S. religious leaders swooned over Ahmadinejad, the man who recently convened a Holocaust denial conference and who has publicly called for Israel’s destruction.

In a Feb. 27 Christian Post interview, one of the delegation members, J. Daryl Byler, director of the Mennonite Central Committee’s Washington office, said Ahmadinejad “uses faith and pious language … a measured tone, seeming reasonable and having a witty personality.”

Ahmadinejad’s “pious” faith, in fact, calls for the establishment of an eighth-century Islamic caliphate that would be hostile to both Christians and Jews.

Many evil leaders throughout history have appeared “witty” when it suited their purposes. Joseph Stalin used to joke after an opponent was executed. “Uncle Joe” would chuckle, “No man, no problem.” Adolf Hitler used humor to taunt his foes, and, oh yes, he was a vegetarian who loved children, unless the youngsters were Jews, Gypsies, Slavs or blacks.

Of course, the “witty” but shrewd Iranian leader told the Americans precisely what they wanted to hear: Iran has no intention of acquiring or using nuclear weapons, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be solved only through political, not military, means.

The very week the Christian delegation was in Tehran, Iran was resupplying Hezbollah _ its military proxy in Lebanon _ with new weapons and millions of dollars in aid. In February, a group of Hamas terrorists from Gaza traveled to Iran for sophisticated training in explosive devices and other lethal instruments of terrorism.

According to Shanta Premawardhana, the interfaith director for the National Council of Churches, the delegation raised “the question of the Holocaust (denial conference) and (the Iranian president’s hostility to) Israel, at which point the tension level in the room rose by several degrees.” An “annoyed” Ahmadinejad retorted: “I answered this question in … New York, on CNN, Time and Newsweek. Why do you want to ask this again? That you have to ask this again … is due to the sensationalizing efforts of the media.”

Premawardhana reports he pressed Ahmadinejad on recognizing the historical realities of the Holocaust and Israel. But the Iranian snapped, “You are entitled to your opinion,” and the subject was closed.

Despite that revealing exchange, the delegation’s official report omits any reference to Ahmadinejad’s obscene Holocaust denial campaign. Nor does the report cite Iran’s wretched record on human rights or the mistreatment of Christians, Jews and especially Baha’is in Iran. That the delegation failed to mention such vital topics is nothing short of appalling.

But I am not surprised. Another U.S. Christian delegation visited the Soviet Union some years ago and returned with positive reports about the state-controlled religious life in the USSR, with no mention of the terrible situation of Christian dissidents and Soviet Jews.

I remember when another despot, Yasser Arafat, visited NCC leaders in New York. The obsequious American Christians fawned over the corrupt and murderous Palestinian leader.

And in 2004, members of a team affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA) met with Hezbollah leaders in Lebanon. It was a love fest between sycophantic American Christians and wily terrorists. Presbyterian Ronald Stone said, “We treasure the sweet words of Hezbollah,” and said “conversations with Islamic leaders are a lot easier than dealing … with Jewish leaders.” To their credit, top Presbyterian officials repudiated Stone’s comments and the meeting with Hezbollah.

Such delegations abandon the theological teachings of Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), a great American Christian leader who urged Christians to confront radical evil and vigorously oppose that evil with unshakable “Christian realism,” not naive piety.

Niebuhr would have been sickened by the recent spineless Christian diplomacy. He would have rightly said, “Well, there you go again.”

(Rabbi Rudin, the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser, is the author of the recently published book “The Baptizing of America: The Religious Right’s Plans for the Rest of Us.”)


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