NATIONAL

YOU’VE BEEN TALKING TO WHO?

Canadian Mennonites have built a bridge to Iranian extremists

JONATHON GATEHOUSE May 21 2007
NATIONAL

YOU’VE BEEN TALKING TO WHO?

Canadian Mennonites have built a bridge to Iranian extremists

JONATHON GATEHOUSE May 21 2007

YOU’VE BEEN TALKING TO WHO?

NATIONAL

Canadian Mennonites have built a bridge to Iranian extremists

JONATHON GATEHOUSE

For more

than a decade, Canada's Mennonite Central Committee has been quietly building a relationship with some of Iran's most influential hardline clerics. What started with an earthquake relief effort blossomed into a modest student exchange, backand-forth visits, and theological conferences devoted to finding common ground between Christians and Shia Muslims. And if anyone took notice of the low-key bridge building, they didn't seem to care.

Until now. Canada’s Iranian expatriate community has suddenly awakened to just whom the Mennonites have been talking to—the Imam Khomeini Education and Research Institute—and are pulling out all the stops to shut the dialogue down. The institute, a seminary based in the Iranian holy city of Qom, is a training ground for the Islamic regime’s most repressive elements, they claim. And its founder, Ayatollah Muhammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, a former head of the country’s judiciary and spiritual mentor to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is a violence-espousing fascist.

“This is one of the most conservative think tanks affiliated with the hardline ruling groups in Iran,” says Shahrzad Mojab, director of the Women and Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto. “They have committed many atrocities, especially against women in Iran.” The incendiary rhetoric doesn’t stop there. Members of the expatriate community liken the institute’s graduates to Nazi Germany’s Hitler Youth. And they are demanding that the federal government take action and deny visas to seven clerics who are scheduled to attend the third Mennonite/Khomeini Institute interfaith conference, scheduled to be held at Waterloo Uni-

versity’s Conrad Grebe! College, May 27-30. Mojab equates the round-table discussions with the complicity of some European Christians in the Holocaust. “I don’t understand dancing with wolves and calling it a peace dialogue,” she says.

Actual evidence of any wrongdoing by the Khomeini Institute or its students is harder to come by. Payam Akhavan, a professor of international law at McGill University and a former UN war crimes prosecutor, has examined the list of clerics scheduled to attend the conference, but says he was unable to identify anyone “for whom there would be some basis for criminal prosecution.”

On the other hand, the school’s director, Mesbah Yazbi, is unquestionably a polarizing figure in Iranian politics. A close ally of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, he has helped thwart the country’s reform movement by packing the country’s parliament with his loyalist followers. No fan of free elections, he has declared democracy to be

incompatible with Islam. “Who are the majority of people who vote? A bunch of hooligans who drink vodka and are paid to vote,” he said in 2002. When student demonstrations rocked the country in 1999, he advocated their violent suppression. And expatriates have been circulating a list of his other bon mots, including a speech that they claim endorsed suicide bombings against the Israeli populace. “Muslims should not attack those civilians of the occupied territories who have

announced their opposition to their government’s vicious crimes, except for situations in which they are used as human shield(s) and fighting the aggressors depends on attacking those civilians.”

Akhavan, who has contacted Jason Kenney, the secretary of state for multiculturalism, and Liberal MP Irwin Coder with his community’s concerns, says the Mennonites, however well-meaning, are in bed with the wrong people. “It’s like inviting the KKK because you want to have a dialogue with the American people.” They should be reaching out to Iran’s embattled reformists, he says.

The MCC seems taken aback with the sudden attention. Rick Cober Bauman, the Ontario program director, says many of the callers and emailers seem to be working under the misapprehension that the ayatollah himself is coming to the conference. (Someone with the same surname is scheduled to attend. Cober Bauman was unable to say if it is Mezbah Yazdi’s son, a recent graduate of

McGill University.) While the MCC is sympathetic to people’s concerns, he says, they have no plans to cancel the meeting or end their relationship with the institute. “This comes very much out of Mennonite Christian beliefs. We’re people who believe that loving the ‘enemy’ is a real command,” says Cober Bauman. “Peace is built by people talking.” So, it seems, is conflict. M

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