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Khatami calls for respectful international dialogue, bridging the divide
Former Iranian president speaks at National Cathedral amid protests

By Lucy Chumbley

Photo by Donovan Marks
Former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami lectures at Washington National Cathedral September 7.   (Photo by Donovan Marks)

[Episcopal News Service] 

Former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami called on Muslims, Jews and Christians to "return to their vital, vibrant and common essence" and bridge the divide between East and West during a Sept. 7 lecture at Washington National Cathedral.

"As followers and faithfuls of the Abrahamic faiths, we need more than ever to cooperate for peace and prosperity in the world," he said.

At a press conference prior to the event, Khatami described Jesus as a prophet of kindness and peace, Mohammed as a prophet of ethics, morality and grace, and Moses as a prophet of dialogue and exchange.

Dressed in a black turban and robes and speaking in Farsi through an interpreter, Khatami condemned human rights violators and those who commit crimes in the name of religion, and called for respectful international dialogue, an end to unilateralism and violent language between nations, and the eradication of all weapons of mass destruction.

Khatami, who served as Iran's fifth president from 1997 to 2005, is considered to be Iran's first reformist president. Earlier this year, Khatami founded the Institute for Dialogue Among Civilizations and Cultures in Tehran.

Visiting the United States at the invitation of United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, he attended a meeting of the U.N.'s High-level Group of the Alliance of Civilizations in New York, Sept. 5-6, and spoke at two Muslim conventions in Chicago before traveling to Washington.

Although he is considered by many to be a moderate, his visit to the cathedral drew protests from members of political and religious communities.

A group of about 200 demonstrated outside the cathedral, waving Iranian and American flags and shouting "Down with terrorism! Down with tyranny!" Many of the protestors carried photographs of Reza Pahlavi, son of the Shah of Iran, who was deposed in the coup led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979.

Three Episcopal bishops -- John B. Lipscomb of Southwest Florida, Edward S. Little of Northern Indiana, and Geralyn Wolf of Rhode Island -- denounced Khatami's visit in a Sept. 5 statement, and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent, bipartisan federal agency, wrote to the Rev. Canon John Peterson, director of the cathedral's Center for Global Justice and Reconciliation, calling on the cathedral to question Khatami about his own record.

"In his own country, Mr. 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," the letter reads, in part.

Meanwhile, Bishop Mark Sisk of New York said it was unfortunate that Khatami's visit to the National Cathedral had generated protest and declared that "every overture toward peaceful dialogue" should be "embraced and supported."

Sisk hosted Khatami in 2001 for an interfaith event at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. "That exchange of viewpoints was remarkably candid and productive," he said. "We explored the relationship between civilizations and the role of religion in shaping those societies."

Sisk was confident that Khatami's 2001 visit had the potential of leading to more fruitful conversations, had it not been for President Bush's subsequent identification of Iran in the axis of evil. "This contributed to the stifling of President Khatami's voice; a voice that promised the possibility of a way forward in dialogue," he said. "Sadly, his apparently more conciliatory attitude was submerged by more radical factions."

Introducing Khatami and explaining the cathedral's decision to extend an invitation to him, Dean Samuel T. Lloyd said: "As Christians, we are called to a ministry of reconciliation. It is a ministry that requires us to engage in conversation with nations, with faiths and with individuals with whom we have significant disagreements. It requires us to give a respectful hearing to people whose actions disturb and trouble us. ... Reconciliation requires us to seek out partners, to take risks, to hear what these potential partners say, and to examine what they do. It requires us to submit to the same sort of searching scrutiny."

Speaking to a crowd of about 1,225 at the cathedral, Khatami described human beings as "the point where the soul, the Orient, and the intellect, the Occident, meet."

"In such cases when God addresses man in a universal sense, He does not specify any particular form, gender, physical appearance, psychological makeup, or a particular socio-historical setting," he said. "What he addresses is the true essence of man; a non-historical being, man beyond time and space."

At this "plane of essence" all the divinely revealed religions are alike, Khatami said, noting that "they are different only when it comes to the theology that deals with the laws and commands within any given religion."

In all religions there are "rules that apply to a particular society and the rights and responsibilities of its citizens," he said. These "can and must" be modified to meet the needs of the times, but when "habits, prejudices and worship of forms" prevail, "the truth of religion that deals with the essence of the human being is forgotten."

Khatami called on both East and West to return to this essence and to take steps toward reconciliation.

"The time has come for the West to take a step forward and view itself from another angle," he said, adding that it must "seek new understanding and to better comprehend the cultural geography of the world."

For its part, "the East needs to utilize the rationality and prudence of the West in its worldly affairs and must embark on the important path of development."

In both spheres, religion has a role to play: "Great religions, particularly Islam, Judaism and Christianity, can help mankind solve modern problems and challenges," he said. "History teaches us that whenever the East or the West over-relied on one aspect of existence and ignored the other, great calamities engulfed our world."

"Both sides must agree to fairly and impartially re-evaluate and critique modernism and tradition and open the path to a better tomorrow, and to rescue life from the claws of the warmongers and violence seekers and ostentatious leaders."

"We have not been discussing hard politics tonight, but rather the necessity of bringing the gifts of East and West together in religious thought and action to begin anew the quest for peace," said Bishop John Chane of Washington. "[Khatami's] presence among us presents a real hope for an emerging, constructive dialogue at the highest international levels that has been long overdue. ... Jews, Christians and Muslims need each other now more than at any other time in the history of the world. May our one God grant us the strength to join together in a new alliance that can make a difference in a world waiting for a difference to be made."

The full text of Khatami’s lecture is available at: