Ahmadinejad to dinner? Furor ensues over religious groups' event.

The Iranian leader's appearance at an interfaith iftar meal, expected Thursday, divides the faith community.

By , Staff writer

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    We object: Activists rallied across the street from the United Nations in New York Monday, denouncing Iran's government the day before President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived.
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To talk or not to talk. That's the debate roiling diplomats regarding US relations with Iran. Now that debate has spilled, with all its fervor, into the arena of interfaith dialogue.

Religious organizations dedicated to global bridge-building and peacemaking are under fire for cosponsoring an interfaith iftar dinner Thursday evening that includes President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran. The Iranian leader is in New York to speak at the United Nations.

The religious groups see the event as part of a multifaith collaboration on issues of shared concern.

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"There's been background work spanning years with the previous reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, which goes on regardless of the vicissitudes of political leadership," says William Vendley, secretary-general of Religions for Peace USA, part of a 30-year-old global body.

Other organizations see the dinner, coming as Iran seems to be thumbing its nose at faiths other than Islam, as giving legitimacy and stature to someone who should be viewed as an international pariah.

Conservative and Jewish groups outraged about the iftar point to Mr. Ahmadinejad's nuclear stonewalling, threats against Israel, and questioning of the Holocaust. Last week, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent body advising the president and Congress, raised a religious freedom issue.

Iran is in the process of legally enshrining the death penalty for apostasy in its penal code, USCIRF said in a statement calling on governments to speak out. If the code is finalized, some members of many religious minorities could be subject to death sentences.

"The oppression of religions in Iran has been extensive, but the situation is more ominous now than in the past," says Felice Gaer, a human rights expert and USCIRF chair, in an interview.

The dinner is billed as an international dialogue on the subject: "Has not one God created us? The significance of religious contributions to peace."

It will be the fourth meeting of Iranian religious and political figures with representatives of the Mennonite Central Committee, American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), the World Council of Churches, and Religions for Peace.

The Mennonites and Quakers, among the so-called peace churches, see the interaction as particularly important given the lack of relations at the political level.

"There are many points where we disagree with Iranian policy," says Mark Graham, AFSC spokesman. "We believe dialogue is the way to understanding and moving past tensions rather than threats and standoffish behavior."

Along with the iftar meal at the Grand Hyatt New York, which breaks the daily fast of Ramadan, the evening will involve presentations by five leaders of various faiths and Ahmadinejad. Organizers say some difficult questions from participants are likely.

"What we will never cease doing is being absolutely forthright and direct; one goes into discourse intentionally looking for appropriate opportunities to clarify concerns that are deeply felt," Dr. Vendley says. At the same time, the gathering is "not pitched to deal with the catalog of extraordinarily controversial issues that are in the forefront of people's minds."

Critics say the dinner should not be held at all and that the religious groups are allowing themselves to be used. Conservative and Jewish groups have organized an interfaith protest rally outside the hotel. Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin is expected to join the rally.

USCIRF sent a letter to the religious sponsors calling the dinner "counterproductive" and asking them to cancel it or drop their sponsorship. "I participated in a meeting with Mr. Ahmadinejad when the Council on Foreign Relations met with him," Ms. Gaer says. "He really manipulates the veneer of being for peace, religion, and human rights in a way that is disgraceful.

"I am a great supporter and advocate of engagement," she adds. "But you have to have somebody to engage with, and there has to be some sincerity. He laughs when you mention any problem situation and responds to questions with a question.... It's a hypocritical exercise."

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