The Missing Ingredient in the Iran and P5+1 Negotiations

03/16/2015 05:27 pm ET | Updated May 16, 2015

By the Right Reverend John Bryson Chane, D.D.

Washington, D.C. -- A missing voice in negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 is that of the global interreligious community. It is astounding that this voice has either been intentionally muted by the American media or, even worse, discredited by our own government as a comparatively unimportant interference in negotiations.

According to a Pew religious poll published in 2010, eight out of 10 people in the world identified with a religious group. There are approximately 1.8 billion who profess to be Muslim, and over 2 billion professing to be Christian. Within these numbers are significant groupings of Muslim and Christian clerics, scholars, and faith leaders who have been meeting quietly since the beginning of the new millennium to address common concerns threatening the very future of the human race and the ecological sustainability of the planet. A major focus of these meetings has been theological condemnation of the production and use of nuclear weapons.

Today at least nine nations are known to possess nuclear weapons, with the lion's share held by the U.S. and Russia. Humankind now has the ability to destroy almost every living thing on the planet in a few short moments.

Since 2000 there have been scores of meetings between Muslim and Christian religious leaders. Participants in these meetings carry a significant leadership role within the broad base of their respective communities. These meetings have been occurring quietly in many European countries as well as in the United States and Iran.

Governments in these countries have been aware of these meetings and have followed them closely. As the retired Episcopal bishop of Washington, D.C, I can affirm that I had encouraging conversations about my meetings in Iran with President George W. Bush and with U.S. State Department officials. The Bush White House made it possible for President Mohammad Khatami of Iran to come to Washington, D.C., and preach at the National Cathedral in 2006 while I was the bishop.

The supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei, has issued several fatwas unequivocally stating that Iran does not seek nuclear weapons. In Iran's Shi'a Islam, a fatwa issued by the supreme leader is binding on state policy. In February 2012 Ayatollah Khamenei publicly stated, "The Islamic Republic of Iran regards the possession of nuclear weapons as a great sin, in terms of thought, theory, and religious edict and also believes that holding such weapons is useless, costly, and dangerous."

Iran's Supreme Leader holds dual authority as the head of state and the paramount religious leader of Iran's Shi'a Islam. Not acknowledging his fatwa is to disrespect his religious standing in Iran and to disrespect his standing as the nation's political leader. This disrespect, along with a failure to trust, has led to cynicism, blaming, and exacting in negotiations with an eye-for-an-eye and tooth-for-a-tooth mentality from both sides of the table.

This fatwa is particularly noteworthy because it is in parallel with declarations made by almost every major Christian denomination. The Episcopal Church has passed eight such resolutions. The Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Communion, with 75 million members, issued a 1998 resolution calling on all governments and the UN to sign a treaty ending production, testing, stockpiling, and use of nuclear weapons.

The Vatican and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops both issued similar calls in 2010. Other major global Christian denominations, including the United Presbyterian Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the United Methodist Church, the American Baptist Church, the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches, have issued parallel resolutions and statements.

Still, the authority of Christian faith leaders is quite different from that of their Iranian counterpart. There are those in government and those engaged in the P5+1 negotiation who dismiss the parallel between Ayatollah Khamenei's nuclear fatwa and the nuclear condemnations of Christian faith traditions simply because of the separation of church and state practiced in the West.

Nevertheless, as negotiations approach the 11th hour, Christianity and Islam can be bridge builders. They can help build trust while the negotiators also insist on verification. At the same time, however, this requires that the negotiators have the courage to place importance on interreligious relationships -- not instead of but in addition to nation-state diplomacy.

John Bryson Chane was Eighth Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, D.C., and Senior Advisor for Interreligious Dialogue for Washington National Cathedral. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 16 March 2015. Copyright permission is granted for publication.