The importance of meeting face-to-face

By Susan Harrison, Common Ground News Service

In 2004 I went to Qom, Iran to participate in a conference called “Revelation and Authority”, a dialogue between North American Christian Mennonite scholars and local Muslim Shiite scholars. A few months ago, we met again – this time in Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. It was a joyful, collegial reunion and, in addition, a nonverbal connection seemed to occur when we looked at each other again, face-to-face.

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Each time we gather for dialogue, there is a kind of audible relief in realising that we both really exist, that we are dedicated to making this dialogue happen.

Face-to-face meetings are the moment when the research and media-informed opinions we hold are measured against the experience of the encounter with the other. There is something profound about meeting face-to-face: noticing that someone limps or has a hard time staying awake in a long lecture, seeing the way someone’s eyes light up when they hear a new idea, or watching the quizzical looks on a Muslim’s face when a Mennonite explains the worship of a triune God (a God in 3 forms).

People are like “living books”, but unlike a published paperback, our plots are constantly changing. And, as living books, our stories interact with each other when we meet; they take account of the new characters, who in turn affect the plot line and the ensuing chapters.

However, these kinds of meetings are becoming increasingly more difficult to arrange these days because travel visas are regularly denied on both sides. Tense political relations in past months and tighter borders in the wake of 9/11 have resulted in stringent travel restrictions and have made such face-to-face visits more difficult.

The Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), a religion-based non-profit development organisation, first became involved in Iran following the 1990 earthquake. A friendship formed between Ed Martin, the then-director of MCC’s Asia desk and the Director General of International Affairs in Iran, Sadreddin Sadr. Working together in disaster relief, they shared a vision to build relationships that would un-demonise Iranians for North Americans and vice versa. A student exchange program was proposed and Toronto, Canada, where a sizeable Mennonite graduate student community could be found, became the venue. The Imam Khomeini Education and Research Institute (IKERI) volunteered to host Christian Mennonite students in Qom.

In addition to the student exchange program, which began in 1998, the MCC developed “learning tours” that brought groups to Iran on itinerated programs. Two tours of 10 days each allowed Mennonites and Muslims to meet and learn about each other first hand.

An example of the power of first hand meetings is captured in the remark of an Iranian Muslim, attending a Canadian school: “meeting face-to-face works as a source of miraculous mutual understanding. I can say that people who are afraid of you, as a Muslim or as an Iranian, after 10 to 30 minutes of conversation begin to recognise you as a human being.”

As I write this, I am aware that I had been planning on attending a conference, “One God of Abraham, Different Traditions”, at Eastern Mennonite University in September 2007. The participants were Mennonite scholars and a guest delegation from the Islamic Republic of Iran led by Ayatollah Araqi, head of the Organization of Culture and Islamic Relations. The delegation included Iranian religious leaders and scholars, Morris Motamed, a Jewish member of Iran’s Parliament and Archbishop Sarkissian of the Armenian Church in Iran.

One week before the guests were due to arrive, 4 out of 15 visas were refused for “security reasons”, though the US State Department did not send this message in writing. Since Ayatollah Araqi was among those refused entry, the visit was unfortunately called off.

This is not only a US-specific problem. In May 2007, 15 North American Mennonites were denied entry into Iran for a fully itinerated learning tour. During this same time, the Western media accused the institute of having a direct line to President Ahmadinejad’s government, and critics accused the MCC of therefore supporting Ahmadinejad’s government by association with IKERI.

The notion that dialogue between people of different faiths poses a security risk to their home countries continues to be the underlying theme of this ongoing problem of blocked encounters. N. Gerald Shenk, a professor at Eastern Mennonite University, wonders “whether the freedom protected by ‘security’ overrides the freedom to build better understanding across these dangerous divides.”

Face-to-face encounters, according to contact theories, will break down stereotypes and build the understanding and trust that is greatly needed between the West and Iran. Yet as Martin remarked when the visas were refused, “It is back to ‘square one’ to figure out how to develop relationships of understanding, trust and friendship between Iranians and Americans that will prevent war between our countries.”

While people can criticise the MCC for engaging with IKERI as Muslim dialogue partners, the fact remains that a constructive relationship has developed between the two communities, and if allowed to grow it could influence the stories of those individuals who are touched by it.