[an error occurred while processing this directive] This article is from the EMU News Archive. The approximate date of publication was in September 2006. Current EMU news is available at www.emu.edu/news
By Laura Lehman Amstutz
Given the volatile political climate, a visit to Iran might seem highly unlikely for many. But N. Gerald Shenk, professor of church and society at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, saw it as a great opportunity.
Dr. Shenk and two other Mennonite scholars, David W. Shenk, global consultant with Eastern Mennonite Missions, Salunga, Pa. and Thomas N. Finger, independent scholar at Reba Place Church in Evanston, Il, traveled to Iran Sept. 6-7 to participate in a conference on the Islamic doctrine of the Mahdi - a figure similar to Christ in Shi'a Islam.
All three men contributed papers to the conference about the coming of the Messiah. Some Shi'a Muslims believe that the twelfth Imam will return to establish justice and righteousness on earth. For these Muslims, Jesus Christ is thought to return just before the Imam.
"I was surprised by the extent to which Shi'a Islam is characterized by this expectation of the return of the Mahdi and how that figure so closely parallels what Christians expect as the return of Jesus Christ," Shenk commented.
Because of the connection between the Mahdi and the return of Christ, the Mennonite scholars were able to present thoroughly Christian papers at a conference on Islamic Doctrine.
"The hope for the future of Muslim and Christian dialogue is a strong hope," Shenk said. "We have a lot more to discover about things we share and beliefs we hold in common or in parallel."
Shenk was excited about the possibility of interacting directly with Muslims in Iran, particularly at such a prestigious conference. The meeting drew about 4,000 participants, more than 100 of them international. Dr. Finger and Dr. David Shenk were two of only 24 people asked to present papers. Gerald Shenk's paper will be included in one of the 10 volumes published from the contributions to the conference.
President Ahmadinejad of Iran addressed the conference as did several leading Ayatollahs. Shenk and the other scholars were able to meet with the president and talk with him briefly.
Professor Muhammad Legenhausen of the Imam Khomeini Education and Research Institute in Qom, Iran, noted the significance of having Christian views presented within a religious conference in Iran. He said that in his 16 years of observation, previous conferences have involved primarily Muslims speaking to Muslims, even if some incorporated Sunni/Shi'a differences.
Mennonite Central Committee has been patiently building relationships with Iran since 1991. This opportunity for Shenk and the other scholars to travel came as a result of at least 10 years of exchanges between Muslim and Christian scholars in Iran and the United States.
Shenk had few reservations about going with the delegation. "When I questioned the timing of this event [right at the beginning of the semester] my students were shocked," said Shenk. "How could you not go, they said, this is the Christian encounter with the religious other, which is the title of a course I teach."
"Clarifying misunderstandings is a major task," Shenk said. "Ordinary Muslims and ordinary Christians have more misunderstandings than understandings, I believe.
"Knowing how to take account and be considerate of the views of others is something very important for our world," he stated. "That's what I aim for myself and that's what I want to train in my students."
Shenk was also able to meet with Iranian Christians on a few occasions. "My time with them was brief but rich, and I really admire their courage and fortitude, being witnesses surrounded by such a sea of fervent Islam." He continued that the Iranian Christians were very pleased with the inclusion of Christian scholars in the Islamic conference.
Shenk and other Mennonites continue to build relationships with Iranians. On Sept. 20, Shenk was part of a delegation of 42 religious leaders from the United States who met with President Ahmadinejad in New York City.
"While I don't agree with President Ahmadinejad on some of his political stances [such as the right of the state of Israel to exist]," said Shenk. "I thought it was valuable and important to have this conversation, not so much for what was said or what we asked, but to establish that there are religious leaders in this country who want to be in dialogue."
"The president speaks about injustice with passion," he continued. "I think it is a core concern for him, as it is for me." Shenk's visit to New York City provided another opportunity for him to dialogue with the Iranian president about serious political and religious issues.
"I really care that Christians be equipped to witness in the world today and that means knowing something about the other," Shenk said, "knowing something about the religious other, as the reality of pluralism comes closer all the time."