Suppose you, as a U.S. citizen, were traveling in a country that only a week before had been described by the U.S. President in his State of the Union speech as one of three countries in an "axis of evil." How would you expect to be treated?
That was the situation for Dale Bishop, Executive Minister of the UCC's Wider Church Ministries, when he attended a meeting in Tehran, the capital of Iran, the first week in February.
"I know there was anti-American feeling there," says Bishop, "but personally I did not experience anything like that. I was received with great hospitality."
Bishop was the only American among eight Christians in Iran for the fourth in a series of dialogues between Christians and Iranian religious leaders. Six of the other Christians were men from Norway, Switzerland, Lebanon, Russia, Greece and the Netherlands. One woman from Syria represented the Syrian Orthodox Church.
"I think I was chosen to represent the World Council of Churches because of my background in Iranian studies," he says.
Before being elected to the UCC Collegium of Officers, he served as the Middle East executive for 20 years for the UCC and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and for three years for the National Council of Churches.
Finding common ground
The purpose of the two-day dialogue was to seek common ground.
One concern group members found they all shared was globalization, in terms of what it does to the world economy as well as to smaller countries, and what it means ultimately.
"There was more religious and cultural content to the conversation about globalization than here, where economics seems to be the main concern," says Bishop.
Group members asked questions of each other about how globalization affects religion and local religious traditions.
"As a process, globalization makes the world smaller, through ease of communication and travel," he says. "But as a project, it can continue and exacerbate inequities and impose a dominant western culture on local ones."
Country more open
This was Bishop's third trip to Iran since the revolution, his first since 1997, and he found both Iranian officials and society to be much more open now than before.
For example, the country's vice president told them that religious people have to recognize not only the rights of other religions but also the values that these religions bring.
"In the past, such an opinion wouldn't have come from someone in such a lofty position," Bishop says. "Islam would have been seen as sufficient and complete."
Some of the Christians also visited a seminary at Qum, where they met with people dealing with inter- religious relationships, who made two requests of them.
"They asked for books on Christianity," says Bishop. "Their library had three books by Walter Wink and many by Paul Tillich. Otherwise it was a spotty collection because they don't have access to western publications. They also requested a chance for Iranians to study at U.S. seminaries for a semester."
Reaction to Bush
As for President Bush's statement linking Iran with Iraq and North Korea in an "axis of evil," Bishop says the Iranians were genuinely hurt by it.
"Iranians are surprisingly open in their criticisms of their own government, and they have had democratic and boisterous elections," says Bishop. "Iran also opposed the Taliban when U.S. officials were still negotiating with them and helping to train people who became Taliban leaders."
"They feel that being grouped with Iraq is absurd, since the most devastating war in their history was fought with Iraq. And they feel they have nothing in common with North Korea."
During his week in Iran, Bishop says he heard many references to September 11.
"But nobody—and I mean, nobody—even suggested that the Americans had it coming," he says. "They saw it as a real disaster, a human tragedy. They saw the broader implications. There was no suggestion of any kind of support for the people who did this."
Bishop's overall impression?
"I really felt privileged to be there."