Please note: This article, originally published on June 15, 2009, was updated on June 24 and again on June 30. These updates appear below.
When it comes to rehabilitating his image in the United States, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad can count on the Mennonite Central Committee for assistance.
The organization has sponsored two dinners and an interfaith pilgrimage to Tehran during which Christian leaders have met with the Iranian President and offered kind words about the man afterwards.
Now that events demonstrate that Ahmadinejad is the public face of a brutal regime willing to suppress the people it governs, the organization has fallen silent.
After more than two days of protests and violence in Iran, the MCC has not published any statement about the regime on its website, nor does it have any plans to.
On the morning of June 15, 2009, CAMERA sent an email to Ed Nyce, the MCC's Media and Education Coordinator asking whether or not the organization was going to issue any statement about Iran.
Nyce's response, which came on the afternoon of June 15, was succinct and direct:
We have no plans to issue a statement.
When asked in subsequent communications (email and a voice message) why the MCC had nothing to say, Nyce reiterated in an email that the MCC has no plans to issue a statement.
The MCC's silence about the events in Iran is remarkable given its highly visible campaign to legitimize Ahmadinejad in the U.S. This campaign began in February 2007 when the MCC organized a meeting of Christian leaders with the Iranian President in Teheran. The delegation held a press conference in Washington, D.C. upon its return to the U.S. Christian leaders reportedly challenged Ahmadinejad about his anti-Semitic statements, but their complaints had little apparent effect. Four days after the delegation's meeting Ahmadinejad appeared in Sudan, where according to Islamic Republic News Agency (Iran's official news service), he said "Zionists are the true manifestation of Satan."
In September 2007, the MCC organized an ecumenical dinner attended by Ahmadinejad and numerous Christian leaders in New York City.
The leaders met with the Iranian president after he addressed the United Nations on September 26, 2007. According to The New York Times, Albert Lobe, executive director of the Mennonite Central committee told Ahmadinejad We meant to extend to you the hospitality which a head of state deserves.
Lobe's obsequiousness was apparently a response to the treatment Ahmadinejad received at Columbia University on Sept. 24, when the school's president Lee Bollinger called him "a petty and cruel dictator."
The MCC organized a similar dinner with Ahmadinejad in September 2008. After this meeting, MCC officials reassured the American people that the Iranian President had no desire to destroy Israel militarily, but merely supported a "one-state solution" to the conflict in which "Israelis and Palestinians elect a single government to represent both peoples."
When it comes to portraying Ahmadinejad in a sympathetic light, or condemning Israeli policies, such as the construction of the security barrier, the Mennonite Central Committee has been quite vocal. But when it comes time to assess the behavior of the Iranian regime in light of the Christian gospel (which it uses so often to judge Israel), the group falls silent.
UPDATE - June 24, 2009
In addition to sponsoring the two dinners and interfaith pilgrimage mentioned above, the Mennonite Central Committee has had multiple face-to-face contacts with scholars from the Imam Khomeini Education and Research Institute (IKERI) located on Qom, Iran. This institute is directed by Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi, described by The Star (Toronto) as spiritual adviser to Irans hard-line president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
According to a report in the The Star, a May 2007 meeting between scholars from the institute and Mennonite scholars at the University of Waterloo sponsored by the MCC provoked a protest from Iranians in Canada. The Star reported:
Were not against dialogue but the Mennonites are na´ve if they think they can open one with these people, said Haideh Moghissi, a York University sociologists who with 17 others signed a protest letter sent to the university.
She says Mesbah-Yazdi and his followers are at the forefront of oppression in Iran, responsible for silencing all intellectuals who disagree with the regime.
It hurts to know that while people are losing their lives over there, some people are opening the door to dialogue over here. Why doesnt the institute open it back there?
The Star also reports that Mesbah-Yazdi is a strong advocate of the death penalty, public flogging and the use of suicide bombers against enemies of Islam.
He is the most dangerous mullah in Iran, says Saeed Rahnema, director of York University School of Public Policy and Administration, who spearheaded the protest.
Despite complaints from Iranian dissidents about the meeting in 2007, the MCC sponsored another dialogue with scholars from IKERI in Qom on May 24-27, 2009.
According to an article about the most recent meeting published on the website of Conrad Grebel University College (which sent scholars to the dialogue), the participants witnessed active campaigning on behalf of presidential candidates.
The article also states that at the conferences end, the Mennonite delegation expressed its gratitude to IKERI for unsurpassed hospitality, delicious meals, comfortable accommodations, and excellent conference meeting space.
IKERI apparently treated its Mennonite guests with more respect and deference than the Iranian government has shown to its own citizens. According to CNN, witnesses report that government security forces are beating people like animals.
SECOND UPDATE - June 30, 2009
The Mennonite Central Committee has broken its silence over the violence in Iran with A Call to Pray for Iran that does little more than tell people that bad things are happening in that country and that people should pray for its inhabitants. Unlike the MCCs commentary about the Arab-Israeli conflict, which typically portrays Israel as oppressing the Palestinians, the organization has said nothing about the violence perpetrated by the Iranian regime against its own citizens. According to numerous credible reports, Iranian protesters have been clubbed with axes, shot and arrested in great numbers, and yet the MCC characterizes the violence as follows:
The recent presidential election in Iran has sparked intense debate and sporadic violence within the country. Prayers for the situation are welcomed.
By minimizing the violent and oppressive tactics employed by the Iranian regime against its own citizens, the MCC has obscured an important issue: Iranian protesters are currently suffering persecution very similar to the mistreatment endured by the MCCs Anabaptists forebears in 16th century Europe. It was exactly this history of suffering that Mennonites have invoked to legitimize their peacemaking witness. For example, in 2007 when Iranian dissidents condemned the Mennonite Central Committee for sponsoring dialogue with Shiite scholars with close ties to the regime in Iran, Rick Cober-Bauman, a scholar at Conrad Grebel University College said that the organizers of the dialogue did not minimize their concerns, adding that "Mennonites understand persecution."
If MCCs activists understand persecution because of the oppression their Anabaptist forbears endured in the 16th century, then why does the organization fail to condemnforcefully and directlythe persecution of Iranians who are dying for their beliefs in the 21st century? MCC activists and commentators have unfairly portrayed Israel as an oppressor nation for decades. But when the regime in Iran reveals itself to all the world to be an oppressive regime willing to kill its own citizens to stay in power, the MCC can only muster an anemic statement that offers no moral assessment of this behavior.
The statement also includes a passage from Lamentations, a prayer of repentance, and a description and a defense of the MCCs work in Iran as an effort to promote dialogue and to build mutually respectful relationships. Apparently, for MCC activists, silence equals dialogue and moral appeasement is a show of "respect."