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  A visit to the friendly people of ‘The axis of evil’!!!

By: Dr. Anthony McRoy

Source : The Information Headquarter of the Second International Conference of Mahdism Doctrine

On my first night in Tehran I rang an American friend of mine and mischievously offered greetings "from the Axis of Evil"! Actually, I found the Iranian people to be anything but evil – everyone was warm and friendly. I was invited as an Evangelical Protestant to present a paper at the Second International Mahdism Conference in Iran, spending ten days there, giving a paper about the Mahdi, the Messiah and the Antichrist. People came from all over the world, including US Evangelical Mennonites, two of whom gave excellent papers on the Evangelical concept of the Kingdom of God and its relation to politics and violence. The conference was organised by the Bright Future Institute, a Qom-based semi-government agency, which began holding conferences last year and enjoys the enthusiastic backing of President Ahmadinejad. He was the introductory speaker. He gave a very charismatic and enthusiastically-received speech, during which he declared that:

‘All a believer’s actions are done in the presence of the Imam. The Imam of the Age is a blessing of God on earth. The Imam does not want to see the blood of believers shed. He constantly tries to reform us. He is pure goodness. The face of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Jesus and Muhammad can be seen in his image. Christians will see the manifestation of Jesus, as Mahdi is the heir of all the prophets. Even though in occultation, he is active and present. We should have a spiritual connection with him. We should seek him, not simply wait on him. He belongs to all humanity, not just Muslims. Justice, peace love, etc. can only be achieved by rule of the Perfect Man. We are opposed to America and "England" (grrr – I found Iranians to be as naughty as Yanks on using this term – I complained to ulema about it) because they rob countries, but we call for dialogue. We do not threaten anyone – the whole movement of the world threatens unjust rulers. We invite them to Tawhid and justice. We are moving rapidly to the rule of true Islam.’

I was part of the group invited to the Presidential home to meet President Ahmadinejad. I suggested a meeting between him (and Muslim religious leaders) and leading American Evangelicals to discuss ‘difficulties’ both historical and contemporary between America and Iran and between Evangelical Protestants and Muslims. He said he was quite open for dialogue, and said they had nothing against the American people, who were a ‘respectable’ people.

Those meeting Ahmadinejad commented how intelligent, humble, charismatic, and charming he was. Surprisingly, the US delegates seemed especially taken with him. Personally, I tend to be cautious of all politicians whatever their nationality, but I could why he worries America – not because of the nuclear issue, but because he is such a contrasting alternative for people in the region to the corrupt, self-interested pro-US despots that litter the Muslim world. Recent polls in the region show that Ahmadinejad is vastly popular. The Sunni Arab delegates lauded him. Certainly, it was wise of Bush to decline Ahmadinejad’s offer a debate. Those who remember the way George Galloway wiped the floor with Senator Coleman will have an idea of what would happen. Ahmadinejad gives quick, extensive and intelligent answers to any question, mixed with genial humour. Blair, an accomplished debater, could fence with him, but Bush would merely embarrass himself.

Iranians and indeed, Sunni Arab delegates at the conference were cock-a-hoop about the Hezbollah victory in Lebanon, congratulating the President (who said the victory was not just for Islam, but for humanity). Posters celebrating Sheikh Nasrallah were everywhere. Iranians are clearly proud of their strategy, and the growth of their power in the region.

Throughout my time in Iran, visiting Tehran, Qom, Isfahan and Mashad, great emphasis was placed on Sunni-Shia unity and indeed on Iran’s religious diversity – not just Sunnis and Shia, but also frequent references to Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians, Iran’s ancient faith, which is still practised by a small community. For example, when we got to Isfahan we were proudly told by the guide that there were several synagogues there, 17 churches, mainly Armenian but including an Anglican church, and that Sunnis worshipped alongside Shia in the mosques there. Some of the Sunni delegates did pray alongside the Shia, but a few, apparently of the Hanafi madhab, chose to pray separately.

Another feature of Iran was an intense Persian nationalism, which seemed to be universal. Tour guides emphasised the glorious history of Iran, including great Shahs such as Cyrus and Darius. Other examples of Persian nationalism involved one guide refusing to call Alexander ‘the Great’ for what he did to Iran. The upshot of this, which I found to be universal, is that Iranians are intensely patriotic. This partly explains the esteem of President Ahmadinejad; his steadfastness on the nuclear issue is hugely popular. One can see how this neatly dovetails with Shia devotion and Islamic fervour – the opposition to US policy is both patriotic and religious.

We visited Tehran, Qom, the beautiful city of Isfahan and Mashad. The flights to and from Mashad – a Shia holy city – were nightmares. We went on an old Russian plane and one mullah warned me that these planes had a habit of falling from the sky! The one coming back was even worse: it was from the 1960s – a 707. I joked to one mullah that it was probably held together by sticky tape. A few minutes later he nudged me, pointed up, and sure enough, it was!

Visiting the shrines in Qom and Mashad were eye-openers for me. Although I have Shia friends, I am more familiar with Sunni devotion, so I was impressed by the depth of love of the Shia for their Imams. The Mashad shrine is architecturally breath-taking, especially at night. As a Christian, I respected the ban on non-Muslims entering the haram, but I noticed that when many people came out the haram, they were in tears. I was also introduced to this at the conference, where a young and obviously middle-class woman leapt up in front of the panel seemingly distressed. Apparently, she exclaimed ‘We’ve been talking about the Mahdi, but why isn’t he here now? O Mahdi, come now!’

I was aware intellectually of the different nuances between Sunnis and Shia on the issue, but it is clear that Shia attachment to the Mahdi, whom they identify with the 12th Imam, is very deep – they refer to him as ‘the Awaited Saviour’. In one meeting, a young Iranian girl in full chador spoke - in perfect American-accented English - of her love for ‘the Saviour’, who sees all that we do, who loves and cares for us, even when we feel we cannot sense his presence, who shares our joy and our pain, and who is coming back to make everything right in the world. The sentimental nature of her talk (British Evangelicals being rather reserved about overt emotionalism) and the fact that she did not identify ‘the Saviour’ made me think that if I had closed my eyes, I could have sworn that it was an American Born-again Christian speaking about Jesus - but of course, she meant the Mahdi.

Tehran is vast, expansive city of 17 million people. The traffic there makes its London equivalent seem sedate. I learned that when one wants to cross the road, you put your faith in God and run like the Devil’s after you! I saw the old US embassy there, its front decorated with a mural depicting the Statue of Liberty with a death’s-head and the slogan ‘We will make America face a severe defeat’. Everyone, including ordinary Iranians with whom I spoke, was antagonistic to Bush and Blair (I was informed that even critics of the government feel this way). Interestingly, Blair was even more unpopular than Bush – they see him as Bush’s puppet, which brings back uncomfortable memories of the Shah’s relationship with Washington. Every Iranian I met found it hilarious that the common description of Blair in the UK media was that of ‘Bush’s poodle’ – they always laughed uproariously at this.

However, I found to my delight that Iranians distinguished between our rulers and the people. Certainly, I never encountered the slightest animosity, even thought I emphasised to everyone I met that I was a British Christian – and remember, for nearly 150 years Britain was the colonial power there, overthrowing Prime Minister Mossadeq in a bloody coup in 1953. Indeed, Iranian hospitality is overwhelming. Often people in parks would invite me to join their night-time picnics! It was amazing to walk through parks at 10pm and later and see loads of families enjoying themselves. The parks in Iran have not been surrendered to perverts and muggers. Iranian patriotism and Islamic devotion does not translate into xenophobia or popular religious bigotry. I was treated royally by the Isfahan bazaaris.

I left with a deep love for Iran and its warm, friendly people. Some people were worried about my going – when I went to my doctors and asked for shots, the receptionist, responded to my disclosure of my destination with an incredulous ‘Iran? Iran!’. People imagined that it was like Iraq or that I would be killed just for being a Christian, but the only dangers I faced were from the traffic and the internal flights! I have been invited back, and look forward to re-visiting this ancient and fascinating land with its wonderful people.
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