The Ayatollah and the Archbishop

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Our first full day in Iran was devoted largely to religious destinations – our first stop was a visit to the office of Ayatollah Bojnoordi, a prominent religious leader who teaches Islamic law at Tehran and Qom Universities.

Ayatollahs are clerics of the highest order in Shia Islamic communities and they exercise enormous authority over their respective flocks. They are educated in seminaries, the most prominent of which are located in Najaf, Iraq and Qom, Iran (we will be traveling to Qom on Monday). Ayatollahs are awarded their titles after attending many years of rigorous training, which include such subjects on theology, jurisprudence, literature, as well as grounding in Western as well as Islamic philosophy. The status of an Ayatollah depends largely upon his scholarship and publication as well as the breadth of his patronage over his congregation. In Iran, of course, Ayatollahs can be political as well as religious leaders. Though the country is governed by a parliamentary democracy, no political decisions can be made without the ultimate approval of Iran’s Supreme Council of Ayatollahs and the Iran’s Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Khameini.

Like all of our Iranian hosts, Ayatollah Bojnoordi received us with the requisite Persian hospitality. (At every meeting we attend, we are invariably served with a generous spread of cakes, fruit, coffee, tea, juice etc.) He spoke to us for the better part of an hour, with Leila serving as interpreter. His message was largely one of religious tolerance and reconciliation: he said emphatically that he believes Islam teaches all Abrahamic religions ultimately have the same aim: to promote peace and coexistence. Quoting the Koran, he said that peace is the ultimate goodness and war is the ultimate evil. (Interestingly, he also cited Hobbes’ assertion that war represents the animal aspect of humanity). He condemned all who used violence to achieve their aims – adding that all Muslims who act violently act counter to the way of Islam.

The Ayatollah also did not flinch from addressing politics head on. He underlined Imam Khomeini’s statement that Iran is a peaceful nation that doesn’t want war with anyone. He mentioned that in the past two hundred years, Iran has never invaded another country. The eight year war with Iraq, he said, was a defensive war against a country that aggressively sought to seize Iranian territory. He made a point of saying that Iran is surrounded directly by fourteen countries and it must constantly be on its guard, especially against the US, who has a significant military presence in the region and has made periodic threats to invade their country. He made no bones about his loathing of George Bush in this regard and he expressed his hope that our new President will pursue a path of peace.

After we spoke, our group peppered him with questions, most of which he answered with what I believed was genuine thoughtfulness. While I agreed with much of what he said, I was eager to engage him more on the political front – and since he was so candid in opening the door on political issues, I decided to press him a bit. He had mentioned earlier that he thought Hezbollah was a force for good and unity in Lebanon. I asked him, given his condemnation of the use of violence, what he thought about Hezbollah’s claim of responsibility for numerous suicide bombing attacks.

To my surprise, he thanked me for my question. He responded that he believed these bombings were wrong and that he condemned them. But he added that since Hassan Nasrallah has assumed leadership of Hezbollah he believed the organization was making important strides in changing their approach and that he hoped/expected them to convert from a primarily military force to a political party.

In the end, I realized that as much as our trip is focused on interfaith dialogue, you can never completely divorce religion from politics, especially in a nation such as Iran (which is, after all, governed by clerics). As regards this particular conversation, I can only say that while I didn’t always agree with his political assertions, I never once felt that he was speaking to us in a disingenuous or cynical way. I saw something authentic about the way in which he received us and I did indeed believe him when he told us finally, that everything he said to us came from the bottom of his own heart.

For our part, we must constantly bear in mind that we have not come here to debate or coerce. The goal of our delegation is to learn, to share, and to create connections within what is currently a terribly poisoned atmosphere between our two countries. And at the end of the day, I genuinely believe that meetings such as this, in a small but critical way, contribute to that goal.

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Our next stop was a visit with the Armenian Archbishop Sebouh Sarkissian at the Armenian Apostolic and Orthodox Church. Christianity, like Judaism, is an officially recognized religion in Iran and the Archbishop stressed to us that there have been Armenians in Persia even before the era of Jesus. Among other things, he stressed to us that the Islamic Republic is a religiously tolerant nation, and whatever difficulties there might be to live as a Christian in a Muslim nation, they were far outweighed by the benefits. (I am eager to explore the role of religious minorities in Iran further when we visit Jewish communal leaders on Sunday.

Like the Ayatollah, Archbishop Sarkissian addressed politics unabashedly, and he made no bones about his disgust that the US and Israeli governments refuse to officially recognize the Armenian genocide. But also like the Ayatollah, he espoused a tolerant and universal religious world view. I was especially taken by one comment: when asked of his opinion of evangelism, he emphatically rejected religious coercion, stating that in his view, “dialogue is a new kind of evangelism.”

Our final visit of the day was with our hosts at the Center for Interreligious Dialogue. The Center is technically affiliated with the Iranian government (through the Department of Education and Research) but it operates in a sphere that ranges far beyond the government, conducting academic research and dialogue with a wide spectrum of faiths. The Center’s Director, Dr. Rasoul Rasoulipour, is a Professor of Philosophy and is clearly committed to religion as a force for uniting peoples. He also been the guiding presence for these eight FOR delegations from the Iranian side and his commitment to the power of dialogue and relationship is immediately obvious. We were all immediately taken by his warmth and humor, even as exhausted as we were by our first full day in Iran.

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(Top pic: Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, me, Ayatollah Bojnoordi, (HUC Rabbinical Student) Sarah Bassin, Brother Clark Berge (Franciscan); middle pic: me with Archbishop Sarkissian; Bottom pic: leadership of the Center for Interreligious Dialogue, Dr. Rasoulipour is on far left)

3 thoughts on “The Ayatollah and the Archbishop

  1. Brant: It is wonderful that you are in Iran. This is important work. I was wondering if you’d be interested/willing to write a single overall post for my blog about yr trip once you return, addressing issues of concern to Israel and American Jews related to Iran’s nuclear goals.

    We need to hear from first hand sources like you about these things rather than trust the filter through which these questions are addressed in the Israeli & U.S. media.

  2. What a fascinating first couple days! Your writing is fantastic — you have a great knack for summarizing a meeting in a way that makes me feel like I was there. I feel honored just to know members of this delegation — and be there by proxy. Thanks for writing!

  3. Such a wonderful approach and article, but it made me wonder
    why didn’t you visit an Ayatollah in the opposition? In or out of Iraq, such as Ayatollah Ahmad Shirazi in Kuwait and his father Sadiq Shirazi in Qom or Sheikh Yasir Al-Habib in London

    but as I said, such a wonderful article 🙂

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