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US bishops and Iranian ayatollahs hold talks on nuclear arms

The religious leaders meet at the Ayatollah Marashi Najafi Library in Qom, Iran, in March (CNS/ Stephen M Colecchi)

It has been revealed that a small group of US Catholic bishops have met with Iranian ayatollahs to discuss nuclear weapons and the role of faith leaders in influencing political moves on the issue of Iran’s nuclear programme.

The meeting in Iran, hosted by the Supreme Council of Seminary Teachers of Qom, took place in March and it is hoped dialogue between the two groups will continue in the future. The meeting began with basic discussions of areas of philosophical and theological commonality between Catholicism and Islam, and concluded with a commitment to issue a joint statement, said the US bishop who led the delegation.

The four-day session between three US bishops and four prominent Muslim scholars and ayatollahs began with contacts facilitated by two Iranian-American doctoral students of John Steinbruner, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland and a consultant to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on International Peace and Justice.

Committee chairman Bishop Richard E Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, told Catholic News Service that the trip was keeping with the emphasis by Pope Francis on dialogue being “the key to discovering truth and avoiding misunderstanding”.

He explained that Steinbruner had suggested such a dialogue to the committee. Once the bishops agreed, he and the students, along with USCCB staff, spent a year making arrangements. The State Department and the Vatican were advised of the project, but it remained an independent activity.

Bishop Pates was accompanied by Cardinal Theodore E McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington, who has lengthy expertise in the Middle East, and Auxiliary Bishop Denis J Madden of Baltimore, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.

Stephen Colecchi, director of the USCCB’s Office of International Justice and Peace, told CNS that word of the bishops’ March 11-17 trip to Iran was not made public until May because it wasn’t until then that the participants had the chance to report on the dialogue to members of Congress and a deputy secretary of state.

Colecchi and Steinbruner accompanied the bishops, as did Ebrahim Mohseni, one of the University of Maryland doctoral candidates. The Islamic clerics who participated were Ayatollah Morteza Moghtadaei, vice president of the Supreme Council of the Seminary Teachers of Qom; Grand Ayatollah Abdollah Javadi Amoli, Ayatollah Sayed Jawad Shahrestani and Ayatollah Ali-Reza Arafi.

News of the dialogue came out just as a round of talks were being held in Vienna about Iran’s nuclear programme. The so-called P5+1, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the United States, China, France, Russia and the United Kingdom) plus Germany, began drafting a plan of action toward resolving fears about Iran developing nuclear weapons, according to the State Department.

At a briefing on May 13 in Vienna on the P5+1 talks, a senior State Department official said “everyone has approached these talks with seriousness and with professionalism. It also appears that everyone has come to the table wanting a diplomatic solution, but having the intent doesn’t mean it will necessarily happen. Quite frankly, this is very, very difficult. I would caution people that just because we will be drafting it certainly doesn’t mean an agreement is imminent or that we are certain to eventually get to a resolution of these issues.”

The official added that “there are a range of complicated issues to address. And we do not know if Iran will be able to make the tough decisions they must to ensure the world that they will not obtain a nuclear weapon and that their program is for entirely peaceful purposes, as they have said.”

Bishop Pates said that in their sessions, the Iranian religious leaders and the bishops began from the common belief of Muslims and Catholics in the existence of one God who created humans and that therefore every person is to be revered. A second point of commonality came from the teaching of both faiths that because of their creation by God, each person has basic rights and human dignity.

The Muslim and Catholic leaders agreed that the use of nuclear weapons is immoral because innocent lives would inevitably be lost, Bishop Pates said. From there, discussions considered the morality of a government obtaining weapons capabilities in order to defend its people from outside threats.

Bishop Pates said they also touched on the morality of economic sanctions against Iran, which are intended to pressure the government to stop its pursuit of nuclear weapons capability.

He said the delegation saw no particular evidence of poverty or other obvious effects of the sanctions, but that they heard stories of their impact. One of the ayatollahs, for example, told him he had had two sisters-in-law die of cancer that would normally have been readily treatable with medicines. Although medications are exempt from the sanctions, the religious leader told him, restrictions on finances mean that it is often quite difficult to pay for exempt items to be imported.

“It’s almost a given from the American perspective that the sanctions are working,” said Bishop Pates. “Some want to tighten them.”

But he said that among the group that went to Iran discussion arose about whether the Iranian people have responded to the sanctions with a renewed sense of national unity — much as Americans rallied together during World War II shortages of basic commodities — rather than with any feeling that they should hold their own government responsible for the hardships imposed by other countries.

The US bishops also met with Christian religious leaders in Iran, Bishop Pates said.

The Iran trip was followed in April by a “Colloquium on Revitalising Catholic Engagement on Nuclear Disarmament” co-sponsored by Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies in collaboration with the USCCB; Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs; and Boston College.

Bishop Pates was a co-convener of the event that drew 40 bishops, policy specialists, scholars and students at a session at Stanford University in California hosted by former secretaries of state George Shultz and William Perry.


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