Peter Sensenig and Behzad Nikdin converse at the ISCA conference in Iran. Photographer: Masood Aslani

By Peter Sensenig
Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Peter Sensenig, who serves in Chad, through Eastern Mennonite Missions and Mennonite Mission Network, reports on a visit to Iran that included conferences and times of informal sharing. 

When I arrived in Qom, Iran, for the Positive Global Ethics conference at the Islamic Sciences and Culture Academy (ISCA), March 3-7, Muhammad, a Shia Muslim man, asked me why I had come. I told him that I thought the Holy Spirit had led me. Muhammad told me that he had been deeply depressed and asked God for hope. 

“Then, I got the phone call that you were coming here for a conference,” Muhammad said. “I found one of your sermons online, and I thought, ‘This is an answer to my prayers.’ You are here because God sent you.” 

Positive Global Ethics conference 

Most of the Positive Global Ethics conference meetings took place in Qom, a center of Shia theology and religion. About 30 people attended — mostly Shia clerics — and about 50 more joined virtually. 

I presented a paper on the biblical calling for us to be peacemakers, with special attention to the Sermon on the Mount. Since I was speaking about Jesus directly from the Bible, my paper was the only one for which a formal response had been prepared in advance. Fasihi Mehdi, a professor from the ISCA, responded affirmatively to several points: 

  • Jesus’ response to peacemaking is creative. 
  • In the Bible, reconciliation is the goal. 
  • Jesus Christ offers a way out of the revenge cycle. 
  • Jesus calls us to service, instead of to power. 

Fasihi Mehdi also highlighted some points of ambiguity for a Muslim audience: 

  • God decides on war in the Hebrew Bible, but how does this play out in our world? 
  • How do we deal with the contradictory ideas about killing found in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament? 
  • Jesus did not address war. Could it be that peace for him is mostly personal? 

The question of a nonviolent response to the crisis in Gaza came up repeatedly through the conference, showing the depth of identification with the suffering of the people of Palestine. 

In a session for university students, I spoke about my calling to Chad, obeying the voice of Isa al-Masih (Jesus Christ, as he is referred to in the Qur’an), to work for peace between Christians and Muslims. I shared about the recent multi-faith meetings in central Chad and the passages of the Qur’an and the Bible that participants cited as a motivation for building peace. I suggested that the more we create the kinds of spaces in which we share what is beautiful about our own faith and build trust, the more the Holy Spirit can guide us into peace. 

Ayatollah, the title of a high-ranking Muslim cleric, Alavi Boroujerdi shared Islamic stories of peacemaking: 

  • Imam Ali is considered by Shia Muslims to be the example of virtue, the most important companion of Muhammad and the rightful heir of his authority. Imam Ali did everything he could to avert war and guard the rights of his enemies. 
  • In the Qur’an, God asked the Prophet Musa (Moses) why he didn’t save Pharaoh from drowning in the Red Sea when he had the chance. God tells Musa that he created and loves even Pharaoh. 
  • Islam gives priority to compassion over rules. If necessary, one must give away the last drops of water to a thirsty dog or plant, rather than do ablutions (ritual washing) before prayer. 

In response, I told the Ayatollah the story of Dirk Willemsz rescuing his pursuer at great personal cost. Ayatollah Alavi listened intently and blessed us with a warm kiss on the cheek, as we departed. 

The most important interfaith dialogue is with our children 

I proposed that the first and most important interfaith dialogue we have is with our own children, whose experiences of the world are different from our own, and with whom we must sensitively try to share what is important to us about our faith. In this task, I suggested, we are facing the same challenge, as Muslims and Christians. There was wide agreement.  

For certain people in the room, however, the answer was straightforward: We simply have to enforce the ethical standards we believe in, and the younger generation’s faith will follow. Others shared with me later, in private, that this sort of denial of the generational change that is already happening is widespread among the older religious leaders. 

Global politics make diplomacy difficult 

The lack of diplomacy between Iran and other countries makes exchanges difficult but not impossible. Our visas were issued at the last minute and with great effort. The Iranians that I encountered are distressed by the idea that their country is perceived as hostile when many have positive attitudes toward the West and toward U.S. citizens. They grieve the fact that politics have cut them off from the outside world. But they do not want another revolution. Revolutions are radical, by definition, with unforeseen consequences. The warm reception I received was in the context of signs around town reading “Down with USA/Down with Israel! We will never back down!” 

Iran is struggling economically with inflation, in part because of U.S.-led sanctions since the United States withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (“the Iran nuclear deal”) in 2018. Ordinary Iranians pay the price for the conflict and are not hopeful about the economic future of their country unless such sanctions are lifted. 

Friendship is a form of radical resistance 

Perhaps because of the seemingly intractable political challenges, attention has turned to another radical form of resistance: friendship. The power and potential of friendship came up throughout the meetings. Some examples are:  

  • “Friendship is the highest form of salvation. A Muslim sage declared, ‘If in the end I could receive all the blessings of God, but lose friendship, I would choose friendship.’” 
  • “It is both an act of love to ask another to change religions for the better, and it is an act of love to help them live their faith better, if they choose not to convert.” 
  • “Justice is not good enough for unity. Justice isolates, but ‘justice plus’ is friendship, the true fruit of religiosity.”  
  • An Ayatollah said, “When I go abroad, I am the guest of Christians, from the beginning to the end of my journey.” 
  • “Love your enemies, because they are so useful — to test your love.”  

Iranian scholars are producing books and articles on friendship. This is perhaps the most important handle that Christians and Muslims have for subverting and overcoming the political problems.  

 

Peter Sensenig gives further reflections on Jesus’ call to friendship in this video taken at the ISCA conference in Iran.  Video provided.


Jesus lives in Iran 

Jesus Christ is held in high esteem, with references to him and his mother in the mosques, shrines and popular piety. We entered the home of one of our hosts, sharing a meal under a wall hanging that read, “O Jesus of humanity, be in laughter, and revive humanity again.” 

The celebrated 14th-century Iranian poet, Hafez, is quoted as saying: “Jesus Christ is like glorious news of one coming, whose breath gives life to society.” I spoke very little, in Iran, about Christian doctrine, but rather, I focused on the day-to-day questions, challenges and joys of Christian discipleship. My hope is for Iranians to encounter Jesus Christ — who already lives in Iran — in a way that is so intriguing and personal that they want to go deeper. It is through ordinary acts of discipleship that the glorious news of Jesus comes to any society and breathes life into it.

Mennonite-Shia friendship 

Why would Shia Muslims and Mennonite Christians strike up a friendship? Part of the answer might lie in the affinity of being minorities within their respective global faith traditions. But another possibility is the explicit connection that both communities draw between suffering and true faith.  

Waiting for the Messiah 

One dialogue session focused on the Shia and Christian notions of waiting for the Messiah. The vice president of the Baqir al-Olum University in Qom compared the two, concluding the Christians have a more individual understanding of waiting for the return of Jesus Christ, while Muslims have a collective understanding of preparing the world for the return of both the twelfth Imam, Mahdi, and Isa al-Masih (Jesus Christ). 

The ensuing discussion centered on whether humans have a responsibility to bring about a society that is prepared to receive a savior. Will the world become so bad that only the Messiah can heal it? Or will the world become so good that it is ready for his return?  

In my response to this paper, I described Jesus’ teaching on the wheat and the weeds in Matthew 13. We are not the master gardeners and must, therefore, wait for the Messiah to tear out the bad plants, as we might accidentally tear out something that God has planted. 

It is difficult to predict the future of Iran, the faith of its people and the path toward peace at a political level. At the level of personal and institutional friendship, however, the way is open, with lots of potential for fruitful engagements. I hope that Mennonites and Shia Muslims can continue walking together in Iran. 

 

 

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https://www.mennonitemission.net/blog/5064/Mennonite-mission-works-continues-to-nurture-friendships-with-Shia-Muslims-in-Iran-

Peter Sensenig works with Mennonite Mission Network and Eastern Mennonite Missions (EMM) in Chad. He is a member of EMM’s Christian-Muslim Relations Team. 

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