Mennonite Life: How did it happen that you and other Mennonites were invited to religious dialogue with Muslims in Iran?

Finger:MCC has developed very good relationships with the Iranians, especially with religious leaders at Qom, the present center of Shi'a Islam. Two Shi'a-Mennonite dialogues have been held at Qom. Mennonites have studied there while Iranians have studied under Mennonite auspices in North America. The Iranians apparently trust that our peaceful approach to them and other peoples is sincere, and that we are not invested in our governments' agendas. They do not find us threatening. Consequently, the Mahdism conference planners asked MCC to appoint three participants (David Shenk, Gerald Shenk, and me).

Mennonite Life: The American press today regularly demonizes President Ahmadinejad. What were your impressions of the man?

Finger:Above all, that he is deeply religious. Ahmadinejad talks far more like a preacher than a head of state. He constantly insists that the world's only hope for peace lies in God and in following the teachings of the prophets. Yet it is not enough to hope that God will fix things. We must also strive after inner holiness and righteousness. His own inner longing comes through as he speaks, and appears quite intense. His lifestyle is very simple, even somewhat ascetic, for someone in his position.

Mennonite Life: Is President Ahmadinejad genuinely interested in dialogue with Christians? Or is he seeking to manipulate public opinion?

Finger:I think he definitely wants to co-operate with all Christians in all countries who share his vision of justice and peace. He believes that Jesus will return with the Mahdi to judge evil and bring peace. He challenges "Christians" who support western domination: how will you answer to Jesus for your actions when he comes? Ahmadinejad put this to President Bush several times in his letter to him in May.

Mennonite Life: What kind of Jesus do he and Shi'a leaders expect?

Finger:In the Qu'ran, Jesus is a great prophet, even the Messiah. But how could the Messiah die? In the Qu'ran, he did not. God raptured Jesus up into heaven to escape crucifixion (some unfortunate, perhaps Judas, was crucified.) God will send Jesus back, along with the Mahdi, to finish his mission, but under the latter's direction. Jesus will explain something he never got around to in his earlier mission: he was Muhammad's forerunner, and not divine, as Christians came to suppose.

Mennonite Life: Are Ahmadinejad and the Shi'a leaders open to genuine dialogue with Christians about our different understanding of Jesus and his radical teachings about peace?

Finger:My visit suggests that different answers may exist on two levels. On the scholarly level, such as the Conference, they seem genuinely interested in what we think. At Qom we found many excellent Christian writings in the libraries, and were shown many more that had been recently translated, or were being translated, into Farsi. But on the broader social level, Iran is an Islamic Republic. Only Christian denominations with lengthy indigenous histories-- such as the Assyrians and Armenians (about 1% of the population)-- are legal. These are not supposed to evangelize, and their supply of popular Christian literature and facilities for training leaders is very limited.

In our addresses to the Conference, our discussions with many participants, and our frequent TV interviews, we few Christians felt free to say whatever we wanted. But this kind of openness might be restricted to this "elite" level. Nevertheless, it provides an excellent opportunity to initiate genuine dialogue, and to discover how open to it the Iranian leaders are.

Mennonite Life: What is the Islamic doctrine regarding the "Return of the Mahdi"? Is the doctrine central to Shi'a? Or is it a marginal teaching held by a minority?

Finger:There is nothing about the Mahdi in the Qu'ran, unless you interpret certain verses quite creatively. But within 50-100 years of Muhammad's death, belief in the Mahdi was fairly widespread among Muslims. Some scholars propose that the original Mahdi was actually Jesus, but that widening differences between Muslims and Christians relegated him to a supporting role for another figure. In Sunni Islam, the Mahdi can be an earthly person who claims to be this figure and gathers followers, usually to fight. In the Sudan, for example, one Muhammad Ahmad proclaimed himself Mahdi in 1881 and led a destructive but largely successful holy war against Egyptian and British occupiers.

Shi'as, however, believe that Allah delegated leadership of the Muslims to 12 Imams, who were usually persecuted, and sometimes executed, by the heretical Sunni rulers. To save the 12th Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, from such a fate in 840 C.E., Allah raised him to heaven, as He had earlier raised Jesus. So both of them are waiting there, to return together. For Shi'as, the Mahdi is this one specific person, the twelfth Imam, whom they consider the perfect human being.

His coming will render the truth of Shi'a Islam, and falsity of Sunni Islam, manifest to all. This hope sustains many members of this minority group with a long history of persecution. Sunnis, however, often complain that the Mahdi's exalted status in Shi'a places him above Muhammad.

Mennonite Life: Have some Muslims set an actual date for the "Return of the Mahdi," as Claas Epp, Jr. (for example) set an exact date for the return of Jesus in Central Asia in the 1880s?

Finger:In Sunni history quite a few dates have been set. Apocalyptic scenarios seem to be as popular today among some Muslims, mostly Sunni, as among some Christians in America. These describe which nations will attack the Mahdi and his followers--who will never attack anyone first--where, how, and in what sequence. So they pretty much predict the Mahdi's coming in the next few years or decades, though with enough slipperiness to allow for recalculation.

I don't hear Ahmadinejad or present leaders setting dates. But you get the feeling that the Mahdi must be coming pretty soon--that he almost must, given our world's dangerous and divided state. But you get the same feeling reading Joel, Zecharaiah, or even Mark 13.

However, these Shi'as do not expect the entire world situation to worsen before the Savior appears, as many Christians do. They believe, as Jews often have, that he will come when his people attain the righteousness necessary to receive him. This could give Iran, the world's foremost Shi'a nation by far, an extraordinary role in future global affairs.

I'm not aware of Shi'a date-setting, but I'd guess that there has been some, at least in the past. I also don't know whether an earthly figure might possibly proclaim himself Mahdi in some version(s) of Shi'a. But shortly after I began preparing for this conference, it dawned on me that Moktada al-Sadr, the Iraqui Shi'ite, calls his large militia "The Mahdi Army."

Mennonite Life: What are the elements of congruence and of difference in Muslim eschatology and Christian eschatology?

Finger:In my address, I distinguished two versions of Christian eschatology. The early Christians expected the Roman Empire, the ultimate embodiment of all oppressive, unjust governments, to be destroyed. They expected Jesus to inaugurate a vastly different society of peace, equality, and justice on earth during a period often called "the millennium." But after Christianity became the Roman Empire's favored religion, the "millennium" came to be identified with the rule of the Empire itself, in concert with the Roman Church. In other words, the present, "progressive" rule of a church-supported earthly government replaced a future destruction of oppressive governments and Jesus' own reign.

Throughout later Western history the earlier millennial hope surfaced often, usually among groups who felt oppressed by the reigning powers (including early Anabaptists). But the West's dominant eschatology, I argued, has continued to identify God's millennial kingdom with its powerful governments, its social and scientific "progress," and influence on other parts of the world.

This eschatology, which removes Jesus' radically different reign to heaven or the distant future, has guided America from the beginning, in religious and secularized forms, and is repeatedly invoked by today's leaders. As you might guess, I proposed that the authentic Christian eschatology is the first kind. It looks forward to Jesus' reign among people from all nations, shaped by his teachings, for which we can prepare only by following them.

To avoid undue complexity, let me compare these only with Shi'a eschatology. From the start, Shi'as denied that the first three Caliphs, who guided Islam's rapid conquests (632-656 C.E.), were Muhammad's chosen successors. From these three, who excelled in administration and military planning, sprang the Umayyad Dynasty (661-750), which Shi'as criticized for its ostentatious wealth, luxury, and power. Shi'as claimed that Muhammad had designated Ali, a humble, holy man and teacher who distanced himself from these Caliphs, as his successor. Ali did become the fourth Caliph (and the first Shi'a Imam) in 656 C.E., but was murdered in 661.

Ali's grandson Husayn--the third Imam--and several followers were slaughtered by a Umayyad army in 680. Shi'as commemorate Husayn's martyrdom annually at their Ashura festival with profound lamentation and mourning, internalizing his sufferings and those of many Shi'a generations. Ashura's similarities to Good Friday have often been noted. Shi'as have a long history of persecution, poverty and powerlessness, though Iran since 1500 has formed a notable exception.

Consequently, it seems possible that Shi'as, who have often critiqued wealth and empire, stressed holiness and experienced suffering, might resonate with the first form of Christian eschatology more than Sunnis who (speaking very, very broadly) resemble the second, Western form more closely. Indeed, such similarities with Mennonites perhaps help explain why our first Muslim dialogue partners are Shi'as. To be sure, Shi'as have sometimes sought to establish governments by force, inspired by their hope for the Mahdi. Yet their tradition provides many resources for discussing a route which more closely resembles Jesus' way into the future.

Mennonite Life: Are you comfortable with President Ahmadinejad's intense religiosity? Or would you prefer more secular leaders in Iran and other Muslim-majority states?

Finger:The ostensible leaders of Iran are religious. I think that their interests and devotion, including Ahmadinejad's, provide a crucial point of contact with American religious leaders at a time when our government won't talk to them. Perhaps other Americans could establish relations with more secular Iranians. But I sense that religious avenues are far more open now.

However, I worry that this religiosity could encourage a dangerous sort of Iranian messianism, such as appeared early in Khomenei's rule, whom the present leaders still revere. Iranians posses a strong sense of international destiny through being not only Shi'as, but also non-Arabs in the Middle East, being heirs of the Persian Empire, and being located amidst major, vastly diverse, geographical regions (Arabic to the south, Russia and former Soviet states to the north, Afghanistan and Pakistan to the east, Iraq-Lebanon-Israel, etc. to the west).

Mennonite Life:The American press has focused on President Ahmadinejad's alleged denial of the Holocaust, and his questioning of the legitimacy of the state of Israel. How do you interpret his statements on these issues?

Finger:I heard Ahmadinejad explain his views in his own words three times, for about half an hour each, and never heard him deny the Holocaust. He seemed, rather, to assume that something awful happened to many Jews at that time. But neither did he affirm and denounce the Holocaust, which I think he must if he is ever to gain much credibility with the West. I suspect that his failure to do so is designed to gain or retain favor with the Arab world. Since he won't affirm the Holocaust, Ahmadinejad uses phrases like "if it happened," which do not literally deny the Holocaust, but raise understandable suspicions that he thinks it never occurred.

As for wiping Israel off the map, I think he means wiping the name "Israel" off literal maps, just as "Soviet Union" has been removed from maps, though its peoples have not been removed from the earth. Ahmadinejad favors a referendum among everyone living in Israel and the Palestinian territories, as well as those exiled to make room for Israel, to form the kind of state they want. If such a referendum occurred-- which seems highly unlikely-- the resulting state would hardly be named "Israel," even though, theoretically, many who are now Israelis might live there.

In other words, Ahmadinejad favors a one-state, not a two-state, solution for the region. But here again he doesn't deny the common Western/Israeli interpretation, that he wants Israelis wiped off the earth, as clearly as he might. Perhaps, again, this is because he intends such remarks mainly for an Arab audience.

Ahmadinejad's positive point, as I see it, is that "if" the Holocaust happened, if it climaxed centuries of European persecution of Jews, what did the Palestinians have to do with it? Why was their land taken? Why not some land in Europe? He wants to challenge the well-nigh automatic assumption that because the Holocaust happened, Israel must exist where it does. But of course, he could still make this point while affirming and denouncing the Holocaust.

Mennonite Life: Is Ahmadinejad anti-Semitic?

Finger:He and the other Iranian leaders say they are "anti-Zionist," not anti-Semitic. At the Tehran conference, the question was openly raised: since Christians and others are present and making presentations, why are no Jews here? The leaders promised to seek Jewish participation for the next Mahdism conference, but also underlined the difficulty of succeeding in this. Iran has only about 25,000 Jews, but they occupy a seat in the legislature, and seem to be well treated. According to Ahmadinejad, however, Zionists are not even Jews.

I wonder, though, whether Ahmadinejad and other Iranians think that "Zionists" comprise a very tiny, elite international cabal (in New York, I heard the number "200" slip out). If so, might these Iranians espouse the world-wide Zionist conspiracy theory, descended from the 19th century Jewish conspiracy theory which fueled Nazism and other horrors? If they do, this would be a third way-- along with their alleged denial of the Holocaust and desire to destroy Israelis--in which they can be portrayed much like Nazis.

In any case,"anti-Zionism" rings strongly through Ahmadinejad's recent open letter "To the American People." If he truly wants international peace, there is no room at all, so far, for "Zionism," which is backed by far more than 200 Jewish and other people.

Still, despite my disdain for Zionist and Jewish conspiracy theories, I reluctantly acknowledge that many of the American government's actions, especially the present administration's, can lend credibility to these notions for some people. Why, for instance, did our government do virtually nothing to restrain Israel in its recent war in Lebanon? As Ahmadinejad asks in his recent open letter: how does massive support for Israel benefit us? Perhaps this support not only intensifies international hatred for us and Israel, but also strengthens Jewish conspiracy theories which endanger Jews everywhere, as recent upsurges in anti-Semitism may attest.

Many popular Muslim eschatologies, in fact, portray Americans as dupes, even slaves, of Zionist forces. When the Mahdi brings Zionism's evils to light, many Americans will repent of their unwitting collusion with it and perceive the righteousness of Islam which Zionists persecuted. This eschatological revelation will bring many Americans to Islam; or if they remain Christians (possible for small numbers in most scenarios), they will gladly submit to Muslim rule. Zionists are the arch-fiend, the incorrigible evil, in many Muslim eschatologies. When Western nations realize who the real foe is, most will cease resisting the Mahdi and his assistant Jesus.

Mennonite Life:Does Iran want to produce nuclear weapons?

Finger:I don't know, just as I didn't know whether Saddam possessed nuclear weapons in 2002. But since we were strongly assured that Saddam had them when he didn't, I listen to the Iranian side of the story carefully. One problem with the demand that Iran immediately cease all nuclear enrichment is that this would deny them all nuclear energy for civilian purposes. How can nations which benefit greatly from civilian uses of it deny these to others?

But even more importantly, Iran signed the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. Israel, Pakistan and India did not. Yet all three, with obvious if tacit American support, developed nuclear weapons, and are within easy range of Iran. Iran insists that is still obeying the International Atomic Energy Agency, to which it is responsible under the Treaty. Given the biases of most international news, I find it difficult to determine whether, or to what extent, it is. Nevertheless, the U.N. has taken up the issue and threatens sanctions (though these seem increasingly less likely to be applied). Iran asks: why the U.N.? Well, who, at least in Iran's eyes, controls the U.N.? The five permanent members of the Security Council. And who are they? Almost the same as the nuclear club: the nations besides Iran's three neighbors (and perhaps North Korea) who have these weapons--piles of them.

Many of us consider the U.N. the primary valid international body, and wish that America and other strong nations would pay it more heed. But from an Iranian perspective, the U.N. is hardly neutral or unbiased; it hardly represents the will of the world. Why should Iran obey the U.N. (though it often does) when the Security Council repeatedly protects Israel and its most powerful member can violate the overwhelming consensus of U.N. members?

I hope that Iran is not developing nuclear weapons. In my view, "It is a sin to build a nuclear weapon." Ahmadinejad claims that Iran doesn't need them anyway, because bombs like that do not really provide protection. But let us assume he's not being truthful. When you look at the issue from Iran's perspective, you still have to ask: why is Iran the problem, the major threat to world peace? Why isn't it the nuclear club, with its three allies, which possesses all (or nearly all) the world's WMD's? If these countries really think that nuclear weapons endanger the globe, why aren't they taking clear, considerable efforts to reduce their own arsenals? The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty contains, and is based on, their promises to do so.

What, really, is a "rogue nation?" One trying to develop a few nuclear weapons when it is repeatedly threatened by those who have many more? Or one with enough power to attack almost whomever it wants (even next door), whenever it wants, on whatever pretenses, true or false?

In short: I hope that Iran is not developing nuclear weapons. But the question that should be asked far more often, in my view, is: why do we and our major allies have stockpiles of them?

Mennonite Life: Are there plans for continued theological dialogue between Muslims in Iran and Christians in North America? Will Mennonites have a continuing role in the dialogue? What is the value of such exchanges?

Finger: The third Shi'a-Mennonite Dialogue is scheduled for May 26-30, 2007, in Waterloo, Ontario. The Iranians have selected the discussion topics, most of which concern spirituality. We Mennonite participants will also expose our guests to various aspects of Mennonite life: relief sale, church service, etc. During their September meeting with Ahmadinejad, the American religious leaders asked whether a small group of them could visit Iran this winter. He agreed. I haven't heard further details on this, though MCC will play a significant role.

I find it hard to overstress the value of these channels between American (mostly Christian) and Iranian (Muslim) religious leaders, when few other avenues are open in this tumultuous time. I also find it surprising how much influence a small Christian group committed to peace and detached from its government's agendas can have. Although I'm uncomfortable mentioning something involving me, we three Mennonites, though in Iran for only four days, were able to help initiate the New York meeting with Ahmadinejad. We asked the leaders at Qom, and then David Shenk asked Ahmadinejad himself: would he like to discuss his May letter to President Bush with American religious leaders, since Bush had dismissed it? Several days later his office asked MCC to arrange such a meeting soon.

I hope this last remark does not sound self-congratulatory (which would ruin my chances for winning the Mennonite Humility Award). I include it because I think it is very important for Mennonites to realize that our kind of witness can have effects well beyond what we might imagine in today's turbulent world.