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What They Are Saying, Oct. 8, 2008
Some Church Leaders Clearly Chose Not to Sit and 'Feast With the Beast'
The director of the United Methodist committee at the Institute on Religion and Democracy, Mark D. Tooley, writes in The Weekly Standard (www.weeklystandard.com) on Oct. 2 about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's dinner pals:
"In a fourth encounter over two years, American church officials shared an Iftar meal with the visiting Iranian president on September 28 in New York City.
"Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, earlier in the day, had delivered his usual rant against Israel and the United States at the United Nations. But hosting religious officials, anxious for dialogue, would not be deterred in any way. Nor were they intimidated by a mass of boisterous demonstrators outside their Manhattan hotel, where some placards demanded: 'No Feast with the Beast.'
"The hosts of this evening with Ahmadinejad were the Mennonite Central Committee, the American Friends Service Committee (Quakers), the World Council of Churches' U.N. Liaison Office and Religions for Peace. About 300 religious representatives attended, mostly American church officials, as well as the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the left-wing Jewish Renewal movement chief Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, a Zoroastrian priest and former Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Bondevik, who is a Lutheran minister.
"Moderating the evening with Ahmadinejad was former Indiana Democratic congressman John Brademas, who is also president emeritus of New York University. 'We believe that war is not the solution to the differences that divide peoples,' Brademas implored, according to a WCC report. 'Dialogue can make a real difference.'
"Finding left-wing church officials to meet with the Iranian president has never been all that difficult. Finding willing Jewish leaders has been considerably harder.
"According to Reuters, Ahmadinejad specifically denied that he is anti-Semitic, instead insisting he only opposes the 'Zionist regime.' During his earlier U.N. speech, he had denounced 'Zionist murderers' and purported Zionist influence on world finance.
"Notably absent from this well-engineered 'interfaith' evening with Ahmadinejad was the National Council of Churches, whose chief, Michael Kinnamon, instead released a statement to be read at an earlier anti-Ahmadinejad rally. 'President Ahmadinejad's hateful language, denying the Holocaust and apparently calling for Israel to be "wiped off the map," must be persistently and forcefully denounced by all who value peace,' the ecumenical official declared. 'If President Ahmadinejad has so little regard for the verifiable facts of history and the legitimacy of a state created by U.N. decision, it is hard to believe he means it when he insists that Iran's nuclear program is only intended for peaceful purposes.'
"Also remarkable was a statement specifically against the dinner with Ahmadinejad by the president of the very liberal United Church of Christ, a routine partner in such interfaith political events. 'I fear the occasion can and will be used by President Ahmadinejad to claim legitimacy and support for himself by an association with respected United States religious leaders,' said the Rev. John Thomas. 'I respect the sponsoring organizations' intent for dialogue, but fear that the more likely outcome is sowing confusion and disappointment among our own members and, in particular, the American Jewish community.'
"The NCC and UCC leadership have been sensitized to contacts with Ahmadinejad, thanks mostly to warnings from U.S. Jewish groups. The other denominations that sent representatives to the Iftar dinner included the United Methodist Church, Episcopal Church and Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), all of which, along with the UCC, have recently rejected anti-Israel divestment initiatives, thanks partly to appeals from American Jews.
"A Presbyterian official explained that he was attending the dinner to press for the release of a recently arrested Protestant minister in Iran. It's not clear whether he had the chance. After his long speech, Ahmadinejad left the hotel without taking any questions."
Nothing Like a Good, Steady War to Help Keep the Syrians Contented
Former CIA official Robert Baer writes in Time magazine (www.time.com) on Oct. 3 about why Syria will keep provoking Israel:
"[Last week's] car bombing in Damascus will serve Iran's interests. Tehran thrives on chaos, which offers an opportunity to come to the aid of friendly regimes and causes in the Middle East that need backing. More than likely, Iranian leaders were on the phone with counterparts in Damascus all Saturday, telling the Syrians not to lose heart. The Iranian message is simple: If Israel and the United States see any weakness in the Assad regime, they will drive a truck through it and bring it down. And, if history is anything to go by, that's a message Damascus will listen to.
"What we tend to ignore is why Syria has had an uninterrupted record of attaching itself to radical countries like Iran. For starters, Syria is ruled by a besieged minority, the Alawites, a heterodox-Shi'ite ethnic minority. About 12 percent of Syria's population, the Alawites are looked at by extremist Sunni Muslims as heretics, fallen-away Muslims, usurpers who should be put to the sword. In the late '70s and early '80s, the Sunni extremists came close to getting their way. During a February 1982 Muslim Brotherhood insurrection in Hama, Syria's third-largest city, Hafez al-Assad flattened it in order to stay in power.
"But it wasn't until the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon that Syria finally beat the Muslim Brothers. By joining Iran in the so-called 'Islamic resistance' against Israel, Assad associated the Alawites with a cause larger than themselves. It was like the '60s and '70s, when Syria backed radical Palestinian groups -- and fought Israel in 1967 and 1973. The 18-year war in Lebanon undercut the Muslim Brothers' charge that the Alawites were apostates and dupes of Israel and the U.S. Had the Muslim Brothers continued to kill Alawites, they would have been considered the traitors. There's nothing like war to stabilize an unstable regime.
"Given a choice, the Alawites would rather skirt the 21st century and rule a Third World backwater. But geography won't allow it. Syria is at the center of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and Syria must take sides. Since the Alawites cannot settle with Tel Aviv and survive the wrath of the Muslim Brothers, Syria remains allied with Tehran. And this is not to mention that, with the division between Shi'ites and Sunnis widening, the Alawites will feel they need Iran and its belligerent message to Israel more than ever. So if, for instance, Iran suggests that Syria respond to last week's bombing by shipping more weapons to Hizballah, Syria will be inclined to agree. Having been embraced as honorary Shi'ites by Tehran, Syria, a regime whose survival depends on its maintaining Islamic credentials, needs its relationship with Tehran, and to be seen to be shoring up fellow Shi'ites.
"To Americans, it may appear reckless for the Syrians to provoke Israel by beefing up Hizballah, especially with Israel now constrained in how it can respond to Iran's nuclear program. But, again, Americans don't understand the Alawites' dark insecurity -- and the fact that they will risk war with Israel if they believe their survival requires it."