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Khatami's visit to National Cathedral generates mixed reactions

By Matthew Davies
[Episcopal News Service]  Iran's former president, Muhammad Khatami, has been invited to speak at Washington National Cathedral on September 7, a move that has stirred up strong protest from three Episcopal bishops, but one that is regarded by Cathedral officials as a gesture toward reconciliation.

The Rev. Canon John L. Peterson, director of the Cathedral's Center for Global Justice and Reconciliation, explained that "although former president Khatami is viewed negatively by some, he is important as the most moderate Iranian voice willing to discourse with Americans on matters of peace among the Abrahamic faiths."

Bishops John B. Lipscomb of Southwest Florida, Edward S. Little of Northern Indiana, and Geralyn Wolf of Rhode Island protested the scheduled speech in a September 5 statement, describing the event as "ill-conceived" and "inappropriate," and calling for its cancellation.

The statement claimed that Khatami's actions "do not support the goal of reconciliation for which our Church has so fervently prayed and worked" and noted that during his term in office, "women continued to be marginalized, and homosexual persons were executed."

The bishops also pointed out that Khatami has neither renounced Iran's nuclear ambitions nor "the virulent anti-Semitism of the current regime, known for its Holocaust denial and call for the destruction of the State of Israel."

According to the Washington Post, Khatami said in a September 4 interview that Iran is "not intent on eliminating Israel and accepts a two-state solution that includes both Israel and a new Palestine -- on terms acceptable to the Palestinians."

Khatami was Iran's first reformist president -- serving from 1997 to 2005 -- following the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

At the invitation of United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, Khatami is visiting the U.S. to attend a meeting of the High-level Group of the Alliance of Civilizations on September 5-6 in New York. During his visit, Khatami may also meet with former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who committed himself to the safe return of about 70 hostages who were held for 444 days at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran beginning in 1979.

"[These] are indications of the acceptance for and importance of discussions with the former Iranian leader," Peterson said. "Our invitation is a gesture of peaceful outreach for dialog and listening that we hope will lead our world closer toward reconciliation."

The three bishops raised concerns that Khatami's presence at the Cathedral would further compromise relationships with the Jewish community, "and further reveal our shallow understanding of the complexities of the tragedy in the Middle East."

Meanwhile, the Very Rev. Samuel T. Lloyd III, dean of the Cathedral, said in an August 22 press release, "President Khatami's commitment to a dialogue between civilizations and cultures is an important component in the peace process," and Peterson described the Cathedral as "a place of reconciliation that opens its doors to people of all faiths, and ... an important platform for dialogue and open discussion."

The bishops noted their appreciation of the Cathedral's "commitment to diversity and transformative conversation. However, without the inclusion of those with differing perspectives, this event is an inappropriate expression of that commitment, and does not further our ability as a Church to foster reconciliation in a divided world."

Felice D. Gaer, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent, bipartisan federal agency, wrote to Peterson, calling on the Cathedral to ensure that Khatami is questioned about his own record on human rights and religious freedom.

Gaer noted the irony of inviting Khatami to speak on the role of the Abrahamic faiths in the peace process when, in his own country, "Khatami presided as President while religious minorities -- including Jews, Christians, Sunni and Sufi Muslims, Baha'is, dissident Shia Muslims, and others -- faced systematic harassment, discrimination, imprisonment, torture, and even execution based on their religious beliefs."

According to USCIRF, Khatami is the highest-ranking Iranian official to be granted a visa to the United States since the 1979 Iranian Revolution.