Volume 11, No. 13
June 25, 2007
Protest to Mennonite-Muslim dialogue covered widely
Coverage of last month’s dialogue between North American Mennonite and Iranian Muslim academics was widespread, especially in Canada (where the gathering took place at Conrad Grebel University College). Conrad Grebel co-sponsored the event with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Ontario.
Even before the event took place, CBC Radio aired a debate between MCC Ontario executive director Arli Klassen and Payam Akhaven, a professor of international law at Montreal’s McGill University. Akhaven accused the Mennonites of being “naïve” in their meeting with representatives from the Imam Khomeni Education and Research Institute in Qom, Iran, and that they were, in fact, “being used” by their Islamic visitors.
In the May 21 Macleans, columnist Jonathan Gatehouse quoted Shahrzad Mojab, director of the Women and Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto, who charged the visiting Iranian clerics with being “affiliated with the hardline ruling groups in Iran.” Gatehouse wrote that “members of the expatriate [Iranian] community [in Canada] liken the institute’s graduates to Nazi Germany’s Hitler Youth.”
Gatehouse concluded his column with a quote from MCC Ontario program director Rick Cober Bauman. Inter-religious dialogue, said Cober Bauman, “comes very much out of Mennonite Christian beliefs. We’re people who believe that loving the ‘enemy’ is a very real command. Peace is built by people talking.” To which Gatehouse added, “So, it seems, is conflict.”
The front page of the May 29 Record, the local Kitchener-Waterloo daily, led with the headline, “Protest shuts down clerics’ visit.” According to Record reporter Mirko Petricevic, about 50 protesters “shouted down” the initial meeting on May 28 in the Conrad Grebel Great Hall, claiming that the Iranian clerics were “murderers” and “terrorists.”
Amid a sizable police presence, including a tactical squad on the Conrad Grebel library roof, the Mennonite organizers from Conrad Grebel and MCC decided to let the protesters into the meeting, telling them they would have time to ask questions of the Islamic clerics the protesters believed had the ear of controversial Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The protesters—some of whom had reportedly been driven from Iran amid the brutality of the 1979 Islamic Revolution that saw the ouster of Shah Reza Pahlavi and the rise to power of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his regime of conservative Shiite clerics—displayed graphic pictures they purported to be of Iranian victims of hangings, floggings and firing squads. Their shouts of “Down with the Islamic Republic,” that began with the first of the Iranian speakers, eventually resulted in the meeting being cancelled.
Conrad Grebel academic dean Jim Pankratz said he believed that the protesters had agreed to their terms of engagement, but as the shouting increased and protesters began to push to the front of the Great Hall, he admitted to feeling betrayed.
When the protesters would not be quiet, police whisked the visiting Iranian clerics from the building through a fire exit, to the cheers of those doing the protesting. Other police officers cleared the building and parking lot without any violent incidents.
The website canadiancristianity.com reported that “opposition to the conference had coalesced around a letter to conference organizers by a group of academics mainly based at York University in Toronto and around an Iranian newspaper in Toronto.”
In an interview with the Christian website, Klassen said of the protesters, “They felt that if we knew about the human rights abuses in Iran, then we would automatically cancel the conference. They were shocked to discover that we know about the abuses, and we were intending to carry on with the dialogue.”
Klassen went on to say that she was disappointed that “people who came to Canada for freedom didn’t allow it here.” She noted, however, that she didn’t want to be judgmental because the protesters had “stories of suffering in Iran, powerful stories that shouldn’t be silenced.”
But in a letter to the editor of The Record, one protester suggested that the conference did just that—silence them. Mahdi Tourage, a visiting professor of Islam at Colgate University, Hamilton, N.Y., claimed that the protesters were refused the opportunity to ask questions of the presenters, adding, “As an academic teaching Islam, I requested a few months ago to be allowed to present a contesting paper, and that was also denied.”
Klassen and Pankratz disputed Tourage’s claims in a letter of their own to The Record on June 8. And, according to them, “Tourage and others insisted this conference should not happen, circulated inaccurate information about who would be participating and tried to prevent the Iranian scholars from receiving visas.”
The paragraph beginning "Amid a sizable police presence" has been corrected from the original published version. Police did not advice organizers against admitting protesters intothe public meeting or raise safety concerns about doing this. Organizers told protesters they would have time to ask questions, but did not lengthen the planned question period for this purpose. A print correction was published in the Aug. 20, 2007 issue (page 14).
Building bridges of understanding
Seventeen years after Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) workers helped the residents of northern Iran rebuild their infrastructure after a devastating earthquake killed 30,000 people in the region, Mennonites are still building in this Middle Eastern country—but now they are building bridges of understanding.
Over the years, the Imam Khomeini Education and Research Institute in Qom has sent students to the Toronto Mennonite Theological Centre for study, and there have been three scholarly dialogues between Muslim clerics and Mennonite academics, the latest of which took place at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo last month.
The most recent dialogue focused on Christian and Muslim spirituality. After an angry protest closed a public meeting on May 28 (see “Protest to Mennonite-Muslim dialogue widely covered,” previous page), the academic dialogues—scholar to scholar, with a limited number of Christian and Muslim observers—went off without a hitch.
Mennonite scholar Lydia Harder noted that the trust levels built up over the first two dialogues—on the challenge of modernity, and revelation and authority—seemed to have allowed the Christians and Muslims the freedom to debate and even disagree on issues this time.
Shi’ah and Mennonite scholars presented papers on seven aspects of spirituality. Papers ranged from “The Trinitarian basis of [Christian] spirituality” and “The spiritual development of Imam Khomeini and the Islamic Revolution.”
These two papers raised much discussion among both scholars and observers. Over and over again, the Muslim scholars challenged the Christian insistence that God is both one and three. And Christians challenged the Shi’ah belief that Jesus and Mohammad (whom Muslims view as prophets) and the Twelve Imams (historical spiritual leaders) are all infallible in their teaching and can intercede for humans with God.
Reflecting on conflict and peace
Mennonite Central Committee Ontario executive director Arli Klassen reflects on last month’s Mennonite-Muslim dialogue and the resulting protest by a small group of Iranian-Canadians:
“There are multiple perspectives on all conflicts, and conflicts move in multiple directions.
“We did not expect this level of resistance from Iranian-Canadians, although we were aware of tensions with—and among—expatriate Iranians.
“We continue in our belief that dialogue is always better than ignoring or stifling conflict, and so we worked at engaging the protesters in conversation, before, during and after the event itself. Our challenge was that, by providing a listening ear to the protesters, our Iranian clerical guests felt unsafe; and yet by dialoguing with our Iranian clerical guests, the Iranian-Canadians felt that their concerns were not being heard.
“As always, in any complex conflict, peacemakers need to find ways to make space for conversation with multiple parties, and yet keep all those lines of conversation open.
“Our challenge into the future will be to find ways to continue the conversation with multiple dialogue parties about Iran, and to see if we can get to a place where we can help the different groups find ways to hear each other.”
This belief in the infallible nature of the historical imams led to the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and the establishment of a blended democratic/theocratic republic. The supreme leader in an Islamic state, according to Shi’ah teachings, must be chosen by God based on the leader’s piety, simplicity, justice and humility. A leader can be removed by God if any of these attributes is compromised. A council of Islamic scholars both identifies the one chosen by God and declares when God’s call is withdrawn.
It was in the discussion of “spiritual poverty” that the most convergence of ideas took place. Both Mohammad Ali Shomali and independent American scholar Thomas Finger noted the need for Christians to sense their complete dependence on God and then to submit themselves completely to God’s will and care.
The common theme of submission can be summed up in the terms islam (to submit), and gelassenheit (to place oneself in God’s care and will). For both Mennonites—who draw on medieval Catholic spirituality—and Shi’ah Muslims, humility, piety, simplicity and radical equality are markers of people who are practising spiritual poverty.
Both agreed that, while spiritual poverty does not equal economic poverty, economic wealth is a great temptation to leave God and focus on the material world. A strong focus on mysticism in Islam and a growing renewal of the same in Christianity is leading both religions to a similar focus in this area.
As the dialogue ended, ideas for future discussions flew around both scholars and participants, with such topics as the Trinity, and spirituality and politics being high on the agenda.
Church should lead on aboriginal justice issues
Phil Fontaine, Chief of the Assembly of First Nations in Canada, invited all Canadians and corporations to a day of peaceful action on June 29, as a response to years of government inaction.
The Assembly continues to insist that Canada’s leaders respond to various crises in First Nations communities. Many do not have infrastructure for safe drinking water, sewage disposal, adequate housing, employment and education. Poverty is rampant. Patience among First Nations people continues to deteriorate.
News reports about aboriginal protesters resorting to summer rail—and possibly road—blockades, and other actions in support of justice for their communities across Canada, are generating fears of interruptions to services most Canadians take for granted. Such protests, if they were to take place, could delay and inconvenience Mennonites who choose to drive to this summer’s Mennonite Church Canada assembly in Abbotsford, B.C.
Fontaine told CTV’s Canada AM on May 16, “I still believe diplomacy is the most effective way of bringing about change and that is how we will continue to press our case…. But I also should point out I understand the deep frustration felt by many of our leaders and I share their concerns, I share their frustration, and I want to assure them we will continue to work with them, we will continue to work together to build the kind of future our people, especially our young people, deserve.”
Many non-aboriginals are not aware of just how deep the justice issues cut, says Neill von Gunten, Mennonite Church Canada Witness Native Ministry co-director. “Most Canadians rely on government and news media to learn what is going on around us,” he says. “Too often these sources confirm our stereotypes. Nor do we hear the full story on the news. Stories are powerful ways of learning to know each other and bring a human face to a situation.”
Many members of MC Canada congregations live near aboriginal communities. Some even worship on—or otherwise occupy—original treaty lands. There are 23 MC Eastern Canada congregations that worship within the disputed Grand River Territory in southwestern Ontario (see map above), and there are even more congregations within a 30-mile radius of that territory.
“What does it mean to be a Mennonite-Anabaptist Peace Church in the midst of conflict in our own country and communities?” von Gunten wonders. “Just talking about the need for peace has not worked. We need to become pro-active and take advantage of the opportunities around us for meeting and getting to know one another. Our Mennonite peace stance not only defines who we are within the larger Christian world, but it also prompts us to take Jesus’ message seriously and be peacemakers within our own communities and beyond.”
Von Gunten cites the Stoney Knoll experience as an example of what can help. Last August near Laird, Sask., local residents gathered with the Young Chippewayan band in an act of reconciliation and acknowledgement of tensions that began over a century ago (see “Mennonites, Lutherans pledge solidarity with First Nation in land claim dispute,” Oct. 30, 2006, page 9).
He firmly believes that individuals and the church can make a difference. “We are God’s representatives—hands, feet and spokespersons—to the world around us,” he says.
Governance issues, ethnic diversity top MCC annual meeting
Orie O. Miller, the longtime Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) leader of decades past, might not have known where to start at the June 8-9 binational annual meeting.
Among the issues discussed by the current board were devising a new framework for governance, ensuring greater ethnic and racial diversity in its leadership, and an increase in spending on its international programs.
Although MCC has been looking for new ways to redesign its leadership structure and philosophy for some time, the sudden departure last October of executive director Robb Davis forced the organization to study even more closely how it conducts its work.
MCC leaders agreed that the relief agency’s theological grounding and its role as a ministry of the Anabaptist churches must remain central.
“How’s the ecclesiology of MCC different from the Kiwanis Club?” asked MCC Canada executive director Don Peters, echoing a concern that MCC has lost some of its church-based identity in recent years.
Acting binational interim director Bert C. Lobe, of St. Jacobs, Ont., agreed this is a concern. “What is the theology of this time” for MCC? Lobe asked. “We ask this question first before we ask what the vision is for governance.”
Lobe presented short- and long-term frameworks, affirmed June 9 by the board, for re-envisioning MCC’s governance structure. This plan, the early stages of which already have been carried out, includes meetings with denominational and conference leaders about their expectations for MCC, ensuring that all provinces and regions have representation on the agency’s executive board, and holding a series of summits to clarify MCC’s immediate and long-term priorities.
Other priorities would be to examine how MCC relates to such groups as Mennonite World Conference and the Brethren in Christ Church, as well as how the agency perceives its role on the global stage.
At present, MCC is made up of 12 separate provincial or regional organizations, all working under the umbrella of the binational organization. This structure, with its centralized leadership in the binational organization in Akron, led some board members and other meeting delegates to express concern.
Asrat Gebre cautioned that MCC not become more of a bureaucracy by creating new or unfamiliar structures during this process. “We are a bureaucracy, and bureaucratic interests sometimes get in the way of effective delivery,” he said.
“We are mindful about bureaucracy and have spent many hours talking about that,” responded MCC U.S. executive director Rolando Santiago. “We need to be open for surprises, but at the same time we need to prepare our workers for what MCC is, for what our values are.”
“We are a bureaucracy, but with a difference, with a quality of ‘moreness,’” Lobe commented. “We need to articulate that better. What we’re looking for is…to learn some lessons from that past. After we get the vision, we will know how to structure ourselves.”
Lobe said the search continues for a successor to Davis. He hopes the search will help expedite MCC’s self-examination of its own future. A search committee has chosen a field of about six candidates and will begin interviews in August. In the meantime, other candidates could also be considered, he said.
Board treasurer Vidya Narimalla is excited about MCC’s governance dialogue, but asked why the perception exists that non-Anabaptists cannot survive in MCC’s power structure. “There’s definitely a perception that outsiders don’t make it inside the system, can’t make it inside the system,” he said.
Gebre, an African American, also expressed concern that more people of colour are not represented in MCC’s leadership. “It’s a white, male-dominated organization,” Gebre charged, asking, “So how do you change that?”
Lobe said he was convinced that people of non-Mennonite background could succeed at MCC, as long as they share the agency’s “high view of the church…. That’s an important question, because it’s an identity question,” he said. “There is an honest attempt to be more inclusive.”
In other business:
• The board approved a 2007-08 budget projecting $42.5 million in income against $46.7 million in expenses, with the deficit being made up from reserves accrued for relief work after the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
• It was reported that MCC had 527 workers placed in more than 50 countries last year, with a $26.4 million core budget, about 17 percent more than the year before.
• Ten Thousand Villages announced $23.5 million in sales during the last fiscal year, an increase of 17 percent from the previous year.