QOM, IRAN — People back home simply cannot understand why Wally and Evelyn Shellenberger have chosen to spend nearly three years in the Iranian holy city of Qom.
They are the only American Christians living in the 1,000-year old desert city, which is perched on the edge of a great salt lake 90 miles south of Tehran. It is a world apart from the green hills of their home in Indiana.
The couple are Mennonite Christians who are in Qom on an exchange program with an Islamic institute aimed at building understanding and friendship between the two faiths.
Between the turquoise-and gold-domed mosques and walled seminaries, they share the dusty streets of this austere city - Iran's foremost Shiite Muslim center of clerical learning and a prime destination for pilgrims - with bearded clerics and women swathed in black chadors. There are no bars, fast-food outlets, or video stores in Qom. And Westerners are conspicuous by their absence in the city that was the ideological epicenter of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, a cornerstone of which was anti-Americanism.
"Ordinary people back home think it's a dangerous place to be, but actually it's probably as safe a place as any in the world," says Dr. Shellenberger, a soft-spoken retired psychiatrist who wears a trim white beard without a mustache. "We're treated very well as guests."
It was human tragedy on a massive scale that led to the first contacts between Iran and the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), an organization of the Mennonite Church of the US and Canada, that is involved in relief and reconciliation work. The MCC sent humanitarian assistance to the Iranian Red Crescent in 1990, after an earthquake measuring a magnitude of 7.7 struck northwest Iran, killing 35,000 people. The relationship has continued, with aid sent to help in later earthquakes and to assist Iraqi refugees in Iran.
The MCC's student exchanges with Iran, aimed at building people-to-people contacts and encouraging dialogue between American and Iranian citizens, began in 1998 and was modeled after a similar program that existed in Eastern European countries during the cold war.
Seldom has there been a time when dialogue between ordinary Americans and Iranians been more vital. The Shellenbergers' stay in Iran has encompassed not only the Sept. 11 attacks on America, but the US-led wars against two of Iran's immediate Muslim neighbors, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Despite perceptions to the contrary in the West, Iranians are far less anti-American than many of their counterparts in Arab countries whose governments are allied to the US, say some familiar with the Middle East. Surveys show more than 70 percent of Iranians favor restoring diplomatic ties with Washington, which were severed more than two decades ago.
But this is no surprise for the Shellenbergers. "The [Iranian] people are wonderful. They are hospitable, friendly, and helpful. They are sincere in their faith and I feel like they are brothers of mine," says Wally Shellenberger.
The simple life favored by Mennonites, has made Qom less of a culture shock for exchange students such as the Shellenbergers. That alcohol is forbidden in Iran, for instance, is no problem for Mennonites, who do not drink either.
Not that the Shellenbergers lead Spartan lives in Qom. Like other MCC volunteers working abroad, they intended to live like people in their host country, but the Iranian institute where they study was responsible for their accommodation and provided it in style. Home has been a spacious apartment with ornate ceilings.
The couple spent most of their first year and a half learning Farsi. This was followed by reading through the Koran with a professor at the Imam Khomeini Institute of Education and Research, where they attend some four sessions a week. Their learning is reinforced by much reading on their own. Wally Shellenberger is currently devouring the works of Hafiz, a 14th-century Sufi mystic and Iran's great medieval lyric poet.
Evelyn Shellenberger does not mind wearing the mandatory head scarf and long coat but has never become comfortable in the chador, an all-encompassing garment worn by devout or conservative Iranian women, that she is required to wear on visits to the institute. The word chador literally means tent. "It's more of a cumbersome thing to wear and it doesn't have any buttons," her husband explains.
Qom was not their first experience of a culture strikingly different from that of the Midwest. In the late 1960s, the Shellenbergers spent four years as medical volunteers in a hospital in Biafra, the short-lived secessionist state in Nigeria where at least 1 million people died of famine during civil warfare. The couple believe Christians could learn from the Islam they have come to know in Iran. There is more family stability in the Islamic Republic and less personal selfishness, he says.
Ordinary Iranians are surprised when they discover the Shellenbergers have chosen to learn about Islam in Qom in order to foster a better understanding of the faith back home.
Some Iranians ask if they intend to convert to Islam. "No," Mr. Shellenberger tells them politely, adding: "In understanding Islam better, it helps me be a better Christian."