Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Overview of my trip to Iran

I returned on Sunday from an incredible trip to Iran. I went with The Fellowship of Reconciliation, a 95 year old organization committed to social justice through pacifism and interfaith dialogue. One of their principle tools has been the use of civilian diplomats, people like myself, who go and visit the country and then return to tell about their experiences. They have led delegations to many of the troubled places of the world. Local chapters are active in promoting peace in many countries.

Our delegation was the eighth to go to Iran with FOR. Our hosts were the Center for Inter-religious Dialogue within the Department of Education and Research. Only 300—500 Americans are permitted visas each year. We ended up being a delegation of 14 men and women, 10 Jewish and 4 Christian, ranging in age from roughly 25 to 80 years of age. It was the largest group of Jews to visit the country from America. This created an interesting and rich context for my own reflections on the group: rarely am I a religious minority!

We were definitely the guests of the government: I think enormous efforts were spent to be sure not only were we comfortable and well taken care of, but that we got a good grounding in Iranian/Persian culture, visiting Tehran, Qom, Isfahan, Persepolis and Shiraz. We met Ayatollah Bojnoordi, and visited the Jewish synagogues in Tehran and Shiraz (Iran is home to the world’s oldest Jewish communities, established over 2500 years ago); we met the Armenian Archbishop Sebouh Sarkissian, visited a Zoroastrian temple and spent most of a day with students and teachers at Mofid University discussing our different religious traditions.

Most of our discussions were fairly formal. There would be a round of welcoming statements and then each of us would introduce ourselves: name, institutional affiliation, home city and state. These were invariably followed by a presentation from the person we were visiting with an opportunity to ask questions. I had the awkward responsibility of representing Christianity: I kept emphasizing I only represent a small piece of it all, and that many disagree with me strongly. A great joy was meeting somebody in the hallway, or over lunch or perhaps in the street or park as we walked about. When they learned we were Americans, their astonishment soon gave way to one impassioned plea: “Don’t bomb us!” One contact that developed into an amazing encounter off the official itinerary was meeting Habib Ahmadzadeh, an independent film maker and to view his anti war film “Night Bus.”

In addition to meeting people and building relationships of trust and enhanced understanding, we were shown some of the most beautiful, extraordinary buildings: mosques, bridges, palaces, gardens, bazaars, the tombs of Xerxes, Cyrus the Great, and the astonishing ruins of Persepolis.

What did I learn? Nothing very abstract: it is a beautiful country; the people are very hospitable; they are great lovers of poetry. The food is delicious. Reflecting on our experience as “civilian diplomats” I think we were able to represent a slice of American society well: open, affectionate, and eager to make friends and communicate our message: No War With Iran.


renzmqt said...

Awesome, Clark, sounds like an amazing trip. Welcome back.

anntssf said...

It is good to hear that you were able to spend some time in this often demonized country and that you were made welcome. As a SSF tertiary, I enjoy following your travels and your blog is good prayer fuel!
It was good to meet you at 'Greyfriars' in July. Go with God Brother.