I owe you an account of recent events in my ministry as General Secretary, and the lesson of how being faithful in small things opens doors of service never imagined.
Not many years into my ministry as General Secretary, I was challenged by the Baptists of Lebanon and Georgia to work for better relationships between Baptists and Muslims in the US. With the agreement of our board and the incredible support of the Committee on Christian Unity and Interfaith Relations we have now sponsored two national dialogues and three regional ones. In that effort we have established good relationships with the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and their staff. Those small and at times tentative steps have opened two unexpected doors of ministry for me and American Baptists.
Door 1 – Several months ago, I was approached by an Iranian professor at Catholic University in DC upon the recommendation of ISNA as to my interest in participating in an interfaith visit to Iran. He as a Shiite cleric teaching in America at a Christian school had been working for 10 years on building interfaith relations between religious leaders in America and Iran. With the assent of the ABC officers and Pat, my wife, I agreed to be one of 8 national religious leaders to attend. Of the eight, two were Muslim, four were evangelicals, and two mainline.
Getting visas was difficult, as this visit was opposed both before and after by religious fundamentalists in Iran. However, visas were granted and we arrived in Iran on Saturday, May 24, 2014.
Our invitation was from the Center for Intereligious Dialogue on the theme: “A World Free from Violence and Extremisms in Perspective of Abrahamic Religions.” From Sunday May 25 – Saturday, June 1. That week we met with Shiite clerics and academic faculty as we discussed how to end violence in the name of God. Our meetings were in Tehran, Qum and Esafan. We were also able to meet with Protestant and Orthodox Christian leaders as well as one Jewish member of Parliament.
What were my overall impressions?
1) One is that our discussions grew more frank and honest as they progressed. It is clear that in Iran there is a certain degree of religious freedom, but a form of religious freedom that allows one to be active in the faith to which one is born. One high ranking official did speak of his brother converting to Christianity as an example of the tolerance there is, but officially that is still taboo in Iran. In those conversations, it was a delight to hear Dr. Syeed, the ISNA member of our group, speak like a Baptist arguing for full religious liberty for all – including the right to convert. Together, he and I were able to speak about the ways in which Christians, Jews and Muslims in America are able to work, live and share in a common society because of the protection of religious liberty. We also gave specific examples of how Christians and Jews in America were working with Muslims to build bridges of understanding.
2) Muslims are people of the book and quote the Koran extensively in our dialogues. As a Baptist, a people of the book, I also was able to speak from Biblical passages about our commitment to peace and reconciliation.
3) There was genuine concern expressed by our Iranian counterparts about violence and extremism in the name of Islam. They are as threatened by extreme and violent forms as Islam as we are. It was a courageous thing for them to invite us for this dialogue, knowing that they would be heavily criticized by Islamic fundamentalists.
4) There was also a genuine desire to end the hostility between our two countries and to build on the opportunity of the moderate government in place in Iran at this time to rebuild relationships.
5) They are proud of their democracy – one of only two they say in the Middle East and they cite their recent national elections which witnessed a smooth transition between the hardline party in place at that time and the moderate government of President Rouhani as proof of democracy present in their country.
6) They want the dialogue to continue and it is my hope that the next dialogue might be in the US with a broader group of US religious leaders.
7) The people we met in the street expressed a great deal of interest in America. One such encounter for me was with a young (20 something) merchant in whose shop I had taken refuge from the sun. As we were talking he said to me, “You must come back again. Not to buy, but to become friends.” Many middle-aged and older persons with whom we met had university training in America and had relatives in America as well.
So, I returned from the US with the goal of helping move forward this dialogue with these religious leaders.
Door 2 – Within days of my return home, I was asked to come to DC to meet with the Ambassador of Sudan about the death sentence that had been imposed upon Miriam Ibrahim. In that meeting 10 of us (Christian, Jews, and Muslim) made the case for her release. Within 3 days we were invited to meet with the Foreign Secretary of Sudan, who was visiting DC. In that meeting we reiterated our common plea for her release. Again, the issues of religious liberty, and the global relationships between Christians and Muslims were at the core of our conversations. In each conversation, we were invited to come to Khartoum as an interfaith group to dialogue with Muslim religious leaders to build bridges towards peace and understanding.
We were overjoyed when Miriam’s sentence was vacated, and we continued to work for her right to leave the country when she was released but denied the right to leave Sudan, where her life remained in danger.
These opportunities to represent American Baptists and our Christ-centered commitment to religious liberty, love of neighbor, and peace have been extraordinary instances of God’s grace. Seeing these doors open and being offered these opportunities has been an exercise in faith and discipleship. Please pray for the efforts with Iranian religious leaders and what might yet arise in a possible dialogue in Khartoum, Sudan.
One final small anecdote: When I met with Dr. Iravanni of Catholic University to be vetted for participation in the trip, he asked me if I had ecclesiastical vestments. We were sitting in a restaurant and I had on a blue blazer, tie and gray trousers. I responded with, “I’m a Baptist, and you are looking at them.” “Don’t you have any?” he pressed. “I have a Geneva preaching gown and a stole that I wear for worship services.” “Don’t you have anything else,” he asked incredulously. “I do have a purple robe and a pectoral cross that were the gift of the Baptists of the Republic of Georgia to me, but,” I hastened to add, “I don’t wear them in the US because it is contrary to our culture as Baptists here.” “Oh, please bring them,” he said. So, you will see me in some pictures in a resplendent purple robe that was the gift of the Baptists in Georgia. While in Iran, I texted home at one point, “I have discovered that when in the Middle East you wear a robe as resplendent as this one, everyone wants their picture taken with you – even Chinese tourists (many of whom approached me for photo ops when we were in public).”
The above reflection was written by A. Roy Medley, general secretary of American Baptist Churches USA.