Ayatollah Ahmad Iravani, an Iranian cleric making in a rare appearance at a Baptist church, said he is “very optimistic” that negotiations for better relations between Iran and the United States and other western nations will be successful.
“We are just at the beginning,” he said. “Yes, I am very optimistic, Others are optimistic. But we are just at the beginning. The election by the Iranian people of President Hassan Rouhani and his new [moderate] approach has given hope internally and internationally.”
Iravani spoke at the three-day Global Faith Forum, which ends Saturday at NorthWood Church. Christian, Jewish and Muslim speakers discussed their different faiths and issues ranging from “Islamaphobia,” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, women’s rights and how to communicate to a secular world.
“We’re not going to solve all the world’s problems. We’re not even going to try,” said the Rev. Bob Roberts, pastor of the 3,000-member NorthWood Church. The major goal is to bring together faith groups who are often at odds, he said.
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“Faith should not be something that tears us apart,” Roberts said. “It should help us build bridges toward each other.”
Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former Saudi Arabia ambassador to the United States, and Jorge Sampaio, former president of Portugal, spoke Friday night in a session about peace and reconciliation.
Iravani, executive director of the Center for the Study of Islam and the Middle East, taught for 10 years at the Catholic University of America. He said he spends much of his time in interfaith conferences and helping Islamic leaders better understand America.
“Iran and the United States historically speaking have had better relationships than many of the other countries surrounding Iran,” he said. “I think the people of Iran love Americans, although they may have criticism of some of the U.S. government policies. There are more than 1 million Iranians in the United States.”
Spiritual leaders in Iran, he said, will have a major role in approving any decision for closer ties between the U.S. and Iran. Since the Iranian revolution, the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has more power than anyone, including the president, he said.
During earlier sessions, Suhail Khanz, a former appointee in President George W. Bush’s administration, talked about “Islamaphobia” — the fear of Muslims.
David Bowman, executive director of the Tarrant Baptist Association, said Islamaphobia has been a problem in the United States for many years.
“I grew up in Sulphur Springs in northeast Texas, and we heard only bad things about Muslims,” he said. “Then we had three Iranian students come to our school in 1979, and what we saw in the classroom was very, very different that what we saw on the news. We saw a different face of Islam.”
Another attendee, the Rev. Charles Wade, former pastor of the First Baptist Church of Arlington and a former executive director of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, praised Roberts and the NorthWood Church for bringing the faith groups together.
“It’s hard to stereotype and hate people when you actually talk to them,” he said. “That’s not to say there are not real differences and that in every faith tradition there are people who won’t hesitate to do violence if given a chance.”
The value of conferences such as the one at NorthWood is that it can bring together people of faith who could combat extremist behavior.
“Christians can’t influence al Qaeda very much, but Muslims can,” he said. “Muslims can’t do much to affect Christian extremists, but Christians can.”