A Christian delegation recently visited Iran, led by Pastor Joel C. Hunter, a spiritual advisor to President Obama and a mega-church leader. The Iranian regime hopes that the prospect of better relations will silence concerned Christians. When asked about the oppression of Christians, Hunter replied, “We didn’t go over there to confront people on certain issues.”
The Iranian regime’s new strategy is to project its power through careful calculation. It has learned from Ahmadinejad’s counter-productive abrasiveness. The "moderate" reputation of President Rouhani will advance Iran’s nuclear weapons program over the long-term, enticing Western businesses to invest in Iran along the way. This will stabilize the regime and spark strategic shifts in its favor.
The American-Christian community is well-organized, politically active and is one of the most powerful voices against the Iranian regime. Rouhani and his cohorts recognize that starting a new relationship with the U.S. necessitates a new relationship with religious leaders.
That is why the red carpet was rolled out for a delegation of 30 Christian leaders last month, led by Pastor Joel C. Hunter of the 15,000-strong Northland Church. Hunter is on President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships and is also on the boards of the National Association of Evangelicals and the World Evangelical Alliance.
Hunter previously fought legislation meant to stop foreign laws, including sharia, from taking precedent in court over American constitutional rights. He did so alongside a former official of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a U.S. Muslim Brotherhood entity. Hunter therefore has a history of ignoring radical ideologies and track records in the name of interfaith engagement. He has also positioned himself as a counterforce to, in his words, “Christian Zionists.”
It’s to be expected that Hunter did not allow thorny issues like Iran’s oppression of Christians, support for terrorism and support of extremist propaganda to get in the way. When asked about his talks with Iranian officials about religious persecution, he said there were “sidebar conversations,” but, “We didn’t go over there to confront people on certain issues.”
Another attendee was Pastor Bob Roberts of NorthWood Church in Texas, who held an Islamist-filled “Global Faith Forum” last year and spoke at an Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) conference. The Justice Department confirms that ISNA is a U.S. Muslim Brotherhood entity and labeled it as an unindicted co-conspirator in the largest terrorism-financing trial in U.S. history. Its leadership’s radicalism betrays its moderate presentation.
After the trip, Roberts blogged about his optimism about a new start with Iran, falsely equating the pro-Western population with the anti-Western regime. He came to accept — even respect — its ideology. Four quotes stand out:
“I’m writing in broad strokes so no doubt there are exceptions to everything I’m writing, and I met with people that were more open minded in their thinking – not as much with hardliners. But, the thing is, those open minded people are the ones in power now.”
“In their form of Islam, they have found a way to hold on to their faith and at the same time modernize it.”
“You thought they were a bunch of uneducated religious zealots – think again! They hate terrorism, Al-Qaeda, Taliban, and they do not like being classified with religious extremist like that” [emphasis in original].
“Iran has never showed aggression in trying to take over the nations surrounding her – that in itself should be pause to evaluate.”
Granted, Roberts does acknowledge that the U.S. shouldn’t alter its foreign policy based on his observations because he is not an expert. Still, he has a large audience that will be influenced by his views. That’s why the Iranian regime hosted him in the first place.
Other delegates included Dr. Alex Roy Medley of the National Council of U.S. Churches, Professor Anthony Destro of Washington Catholic University and Dr. Barbara Skinner of the National Network of U.S.-African Priests. They attended a May 25 conference titled, “World Free of Violence and Extremism from the Perspective of Abrahamic Religions.”
Going to Tehran for an anti-extremism/anti-violence interfaith event is more than a bit ironic. The illogical absurdity of hosting such a moderate-sounding conference in the capital of the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism is a microcosm of the regime’s overall public relations campaign.
The United Nations said in March that Christian persecution in Iran is at unprecedented levels; meaning that it has actually increased under Rouhani. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom agrees, stating that Rouhani “has not delivered on his campaign promises of strengthening civil liberties for religious minorities.”
Pastor Saeed Abedini, an American citizen who was arrested in Iran while setting up an orphanage, was recently brutally beaten when he was in a hospital and moved back to the notorious torture-house named Evin Prison.
The delegation discussed a “faith-based path to peace” with the speaker of parliament, advisors to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, Christian and Jewish leaders and Grand Ayatollahs in Qom that form the theological spine of the regime and its Islamist oppression.
Yet, Hunter says they “didn’t go over there to confront people on certain issues.” To sum it up, the Christian delegation went to Iran to discuss peace and tolerance— with the officials driving extremism and intolerance — and without confronting their actions.
In other words, the trip was not only meaningless, it was damaging. The religious leaders came back to America and by talking about the wonderful progress they made with Iranian officials, the American public gets the impression that the regime would be a reasonable partner if only we were kinder.
A similar trip took place on March 11-17 when a small delegation from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops traveled to Iran to meet with the Iranian religious leaders of Qom. The trip was sponsored by the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has allied with American Islamist groups in the past so, like Hunter, it has a history of looking past radical ideological track records.
Bishop Pates, chairman of the organization’s International Justice and Peace Committee, came back from the trip attributing the tension with Iran to “misunderstanding.” He said:
“We had a productive religious and moral dialogue that we hope will promote understanding between the peoples of Iran and the United States. We are committed to continuing and deepening these discussions in the future in order to contribute to a more just and peaceful world. As Pope Francis has said, dialogue is the key to discovering truth and avoiding misunderstanding.”
The fundamental message behind Iran’s outreach is that the tension is a “misunderstanding.” If the American public can be convinced that the differences with Iran are “misunderstandings,” then the U.S. will be less of a barrier to Iran’s ambitions.
The regime’s public expressions of extremism won’t be seen as a genuine declaration of belief and intent, but as a sign of frustration over its treatment. The nuclear program will be seen less as a threat. Sanctions and pressure will be seen as antithetical to correcting these so-called misunderstandings through dialogue.
The Iranian regime’s new face and softer voice is appealing to interfaith leaders, especially American Christians, just as it is to Western officials and businesses. The American-Christian community has been a thorn in Iran’s side, supporting sanctions and protesting the regime’s extremism. The regime hopes that Christians will choose “understanding” over confrontation.
Ryan Mauro is the ClarionProject.org’s National Security Analyst, a fellow with the Clarion Project and is frequently interviewed on top-tier TV stations as an expert on counterterrorism and Islamic extremism.