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Reflections on the week in Iran

October 12, 2008

Post by Cindy Byler, MCC Rep for Iran

Cindy and Daryl Byler in Isfahan (Jim Pankratz photo)

Cindy and Daryl Byler in Isfahan (Jim Pankratz photo)

I am grateful for the opportunity to have spent an inspiring week visiting Iranian universities – along with leaders from six Mennonite universities in Canada and the United States. We visited some schools we have met on previous visits, but also expanded the network to include many new contacts in Tehran and Qom.

We were warmly welcomed and blessed with amazing Iranian hospitality at every step of the journey. In nearly every meeting there was enthusiastic interest for developing collaboration for student and professor exchanges, academic conferences, joint research projects and teleconferencing.

I was again impressed with the value that Iranians place on education, community and family – as well as the cultured, gentle and principled manner that is characteristic of so many Iranians.

I especially enjoyed interacting with more women on this trip and now better understand life from their perspective. One of my favorite visits was to a women’s university in Qom. We had opportunities to hear about their vision and programs and to tour the campus. The university makes it a priority to accommodate the needs and schedules of its students. Many, including international students from a wide variety of countries, live in a dorm. Others commute. Day care is provided for mothers with young children, and the university is expanding its scope of education to include kindergarten through secondary school for children of students. Correspondence courses are also available. As funds become available they hope to build two new dorms as well as additional classrooms.

Sally Sommer Weaver (right) with students at a tea house in Isfahan

Sally Sommer Weaver (right) with students at a tea house in Isfahan

Another highlight for me was the stop at the traditional tea house in Isfahan. People sit all around the sides of the shop sipping tea and eating rose water-flavored ice cream. The tea house was bustling with activity and the patrons were friendly and curious to know who we were and where we were from. It was fun to experience this small slice of Iranian life.

We now pray and hope that this trip will bear much fruit and increase the people-to-people connections between Iranians, Canadians and Americans in the years ahead.

Day 6 in Iran

October 11, 2008

Post by Harry Huebner, Professor of Philosophy and Theology, Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg

Harry Huebner shares a light moment with Iranian guide, Morteza Chavoshi

Harry Huebner shares a light moment with Iranian guide, Morteza Chavoshi


In a book of Persian poetry we were given in Tehran it says: “Plant the tree of friendship that to fruit the heart’s desire bringeth.” In many ways these words capture our reflections as our visit to Iran comes to an end.

Our last day was without formal meetings. We traveled to the beautiful city of Isfahan, about 4 hours by bus from Qom. The environment is quite distinct. Here it was very warm, even hot, and culturally more diverse than Qom. For example, women wore more colorful attire and seemed less concerned about the black hijab.

We arrive late Thursday evening and after checking into our hotel we immediately headed to the famous “33 Bridge.” Legend has it — symbolized by the name — that, “If you build one arch to me, I will build 32 back to you.” The bridge was quite stunning in its orange glow at night. We walked over this bridge as well as a second one called Khajan Bridge. These bridges are famous for an enthusiastic nightlife with vibrant music.

After breakfast on Friday we visited Emam Khomeini Square—a very large rectangular court with many small shops and important historic buildings. We estimated that, from end to end, it measured well over half a mile, with a water fountain in the middle, two mosques and a palace. There were several horse-drawn carriages ready to give shoppers and strollers a ride around the square. Along the outer wall were a myriad of shops. Unfortunately for us all but a handful were closed. The shop closure was a mystery to us, although people speculated that it was some sort of tax related day. The mystery was never resolved.

At the square, we visited a Museum of Natural History, the Ali Qopu Palace and the two amazing mosques—the Emam Mosque and the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque. The architecture, the colorful artwork, and the Arabic/Persian calligraphy, inspired us to sit and meditate—a practice our busy schedule was not otherwise conducive to.

The famous "33 Bridge" in Isfahan

The famous "33 Bridge" in Isfahan

We were served a lunch at the Traditional Banquet Hall seated on an elevated floor and leaning against pillows. Immediately below the restaurant were several shops and particularly one satisfied many of our desire for souvenirs. The proprietor seemed delighted with what was apparently a rather quiet day for him.

We checked out at our hotel at 3:30pm and were off to the airport on a big multi-lane highway, flanked by low mountains and dry, dusty fields. We stopped for pizza on the way and by 11pm we arrived at our last stop—the airport, where we said goodbye to our driver and guide for the week, as well as to Dr. Rasoul Rasoulipour, from the Islamic Culture and Relations Organization.  This blog is written at the airport after all but me are already off to their respective homes.

Someone commented on the way to the airport that it seemed a bit strange how being in a foreign land, often so reviled by leaders of our home countries, could seem so ordinary. Perhaps that is because we were able to connect enough with the people to experience what is rather ordinary to them; and yet one thing we can say emphatically, they were not at all ordinary in their hospitality. For this we were deeply grateful.

This is the last blog from Iran. Cindy Byler will offer a post-trip reflection in the next blog entry.

Day 5 in Iran

October 8, 2008

Post by Loren Swartzendruber, President of Eastern Mennonite University

Dr. Loren Swartzendruber talks with Dr. Muhammad Legenhaussen of the Imam Khomeini Education and Research Institute

Dr. Loren Swartzendruber talks with Dr. Muhammad Legenhaussen of the Imam Khomeini Education and Research Institute

We began our last day in Qom with a visit to Mustafa International University (MIU). Established in 1979, MIU enrolls students from more than 100 countries and has centers in more than 60 locations around the world.

Two statements at the meeting were of particular interest to us. In response to our introductory statement that Mennonites are a small part of the Christian family, one vice president said, “You are not a small part of Christianity because your results are big.” Another fascinating comment, “In many settings around the world people are sitting at tables talking about war. They are sitting at the wrong tables. This is not the solution. They should be sitting at tables talking about peace.”

Yet another comment was instructive, “The political history of our countries is difficult; we need to go further back to our shared histories in the Abrahamic traditions.”

We also enjoyed a short visit to the home where Imam Khomeini lived before he was exiled. The house, located within walking distance to the Safa Hotel where we stayed last night, is currently being restored to its original appearance.

Later today, I was particularly pleased to visit the campus of Mofid University, where two EMU students, Paul Yoder and Josh Brubaker, presented papers for a Human Rights Conference in January 2007. Dr. Dan Wessner of EMU has also developed numerous relationships with faculty at Mofid.

The other members of the delegation will depart for Isfahan where they will enjoy the day tomorrow before returning home. I will leave the hotel in Qom by taxi at 10:00 p.m. to catch a 2:15 a.m. flight to Frankfurt and on to Washington Dulles, arriving home a few hours before beginning EMU homecoming activities for the weekend.

I have pages of notes to review and many reflections of these days to consider. The fact that we spent most of our time visiting universities in Tehran and Qom surely informs my immediate reflections, but I have been particularly impressed by the deep commitment to higher education that we sensed in every interaction. The government’s support for education is impressive. Most of the universities claim their beginning after the revolution and are therefore not yet 30 years old. The facilities are generally very good and most campuses are in expansion mode. One individual told me that Iranian families are typically ready to make considerable sacrifices to provide for the education of their children.

I asked the leader of one institution about their budgets and, as I suspected would be the case, he indicated their operational budget was smaller than our $28,000,000 at EMU though the institution had four times as many students from the B.A. level through Ph.D. programs. The fact that the government covers all of the expenses for many of the students certainly provides great incentive for students to enroll. Nevertheless, there are additional students who do have to pay for their education and they obviously make this a high priority. One can only imagine the impact this will have on the Iranian economy and society for years to come.

Day 4 in Iran

October 7, 2008

Post by Jim Pankratz, Academic Dean at Conrad Grebel University College

Jim Pankratz meets with scholars at Qom University

Jim Pankratz meets with scholars at Qom University

Qom, home to the Ayatollah Khnomeini before his exile in the 1960s and after his return from exile in February 1979. Center of Shiite scholarship. A city of scores of theological schools and universities and thousands of students.

We arrived in Qom in the late morning after a two-hour drive along a six-lane highway that took us south of Tehran, past the international airport and through the dry grey-brown landscape of central Iran. The flow of traffic felt familiar, but less crowded than intercity highways in the U.S. and Canada. Something was missing. And then we spotted it to the west, less than half a mile away — a separate highway for trucks. Now there’s an idea we can promote as an example of practical cross-cultural learning!

We were generously welcomed at Qom University by its founding president, despite his ill health. The University has almost 6,000 students and is planning for 20,000. Its student population is almost evenly divided between men and women. It offers undergraduate, MA and Ph.D programs in more than fifty departments. We met deans, vice-presidents and faculty representing research, arts, law, engineering, science and environment. The university specializes in the integration of Islamic thought and academic disciplines, so its faculty is all educated in Islam and in their discipline. Their current academic plan calls for more M.A. and Ph.D programs, more interdisciplinary work and more international relationships.

In the open discussion of possible collaboration between universities, programs, or individual scholars, we talked about language and linguistics, philosophy, comparative study of Scripture (Qur’an and Bible), environment (including religion and literature and environment), Abrahamic faiths, criminology, international affairs, and peace and justice.

We identified several ways in which cooperation could take place:

  • Faculty collaboration on research and publication;
  • Faculty sabbaticals;
  • Professors teaching short courses;
  • Students developing contact with students in another country by email, video-conferences, joint online projects, and short visits; and
  • Sharing ideas for new program development.

Professor Legenhausen, who teaches occasional courses at this university and who has had a long scholarly and personal relationship with Mennonites, spoke briefly about who are the Mennonites and what their relationship has been in Iran over the past 18 years.

We were served lunch at the university and then went to check in at our hotel. In the best siesta tradition, we had a rest before our next visit.

The Imam Khomeini Education and Research Institute (IKERI) has been a partner with MCC and Mennonite scholars for about ten years. Its buildings have the shape, design, and décor of fine Islamic architecture with domes, arches, and colorful calligraphy. We were welcomed by the Director of International Affairs, Professor A. Haghani, a warm friend of all Mennonites who have traveled to Iran. We were then hosted by Ayatollah Rajabi and several of his colleagues, including Professor Legenhausen. The Ayatollah spoke about the importance of our shared search for truth and commitment to peace.

Discussions then focused on plans for the next dialogue between Mennonite and Shia scholars – seminar theme, timing, schedule, scale of the event, potential participants and publication of results. Within the next month there will be further consultations among Mennonite and Shia scholars to finalize details. The conference is planned for late spring 2009 in Qom.

We paused in the planning meeting for evening prayers, which we as guests observed from a balcony. Then, after another generous meal with our hosts, we returned to our hotel for visits with some of the scholars we had met during the day, for a walk in the local streets, and for rest.

Our first visit tomorrow morning is at 8 a.m., and that story will come to you from the eyes, ears, and pen of Loren Swartzendruber, president of Eastern Mennonite University.

Day 3 in Iran

October 6, 2008

Post by Anita Stalter, VP for Academic Affairs and Academic Dean, Goshen College

Anita Stalter, Cindy Byler, Haydeh Ramazan Rostam Abadi and Sally Weaver Sommer

Anita Stalter, Cindy Byler, Haydeh Ramazan Rostam Abadi and Sally Weaver Sommer

It was another interesting day in Tehran — this morning at 10:30 we met with officials from Imam Sadiq University and in the afternoon we were at Allameh Tabataba’i University.  We enjoyed and appreciated the warm hospitality provided by each of these institutions.

Sadiq University is a private university founded in 1983 and specializes in human and social sciences with a focus on an interdisciplinary approach to their programs.  The six areas of study include:  Islamic Studies, Theology and Guidance; Islamic Studies and Law; Islamic Studies and Political Sciences; Islamic Studies and Economics; and Islamic Studies and Culture and Communication.  We learned that the university has successfully experienced collaboration with universities in other countries, including the US, in teaching classes via video-conferencing. We visited their computer center and library and were impressed with their resources in these areas.  A Research Center at the university supports doctoral students in thesis work and also produces publications and books.  There is a separate Imam Sadiq College for Girls that was established in 1991which is administered and taught by women.

One question asked us after we introduced our Mennonite campuses was, “Why peace studies at your institutions?”  Our response centered on the need to follow the teachings of Jesus for active peacebuilding — working on issues of justice, basic human needs, etc. — not just the absence of war.  More dialogue followed along with a wonderful lunch of chicken, rice and salad.

We were a little early for our next appointment so our guide took us to a Farahzad — a calming place with trees, water, tea and seats to rest.  This was a good break for us and we were able to see a different aspect of Iranian culture.

We then took the bus to Allameh Tabataba’i University where we were greeted warmly by the president, deans and faculty.  This is the largest Iranian university specializing in social sociences and was founded in 1893.  The main faculty areas are Literature and Foreign Languages; Economics: Management and Accounting; Law and Political Sciences, Psychology and Education; Social Sciences; and E.C.O. College of Insurance.

Approximately 82% of the students at the university are women.  We learned that one of the major fruits of the Islamic Revolution was the opportunity for women to pursue higher education — especially studying in areas that were previously dominated by men.

Conversation happened on a number of different topics. We discussed the code of ethics that is required by our Mennonite institutions and by their institution — it was clear that there are many commonalities in this area.

Tonight we had the privilege of eating with Dr. Rasoul Rasoulipour, director of the Islamic Culture and Relations Organization — he has been most helpful in arranging and providing guidance for our visit and we are grateful to him.

Throughout our stay here it has been clear that we are all working for many of the same goals.  We have heard a number of times that our presence here in Iran is very significant in building relationships that lead to understanding.

The women in our group are getting used to our clothing requirements — actually it is less stressful knowing what I am going to wear each day rather than trying to figure out some combination of items from my closet to wear to work!

I could write much more but will leave you with the anticipation of reading a blog by Jim Pankratz tomorrow.

Day 2 in Iran

October 6, 2008

Post by Sally Weaver Sommer,  VP and Dean of Academic Affairs at Bluffton University

Ted Koontz (right) with professor and students at Tarbiat Modarres University

Ted Koontz (right) with professor and students at Tarbiat Modarres University

October 5 was a full day of varied impressions and experiences.  Our first stop after breakfast was Tarbiat Modarres University.  This university was extablished in 1982 after the revolution.  With the new government’s strong commitment to higher education and the fleeing of many of the country’s university professors after the revolution, the government recognized the need for an instituion that would focus on preparing Iranians to teach at the university level.  5500 graduate students study at this beautiful new campus.  During the visit we learned about the various faculties of the university and toured several of the science labs.  We learned of the struggles to get needed equipment because of sanctions against the Iranian government.

Our next stop was the Armenian Orthodox Church.  There we visited with Archbishop Sarkissian.  He shared with us the experience of the Christian Church in Iran.  Armenians have been in Iran since the 17th century.  According to the Archbishop, the church enjoys a good relationship with the Iranian people and government.  The church has two seats in the Parliament.  We had the opportunity to experience a few minutes of the church’s worship service and hear the beautiful choir music.

Tehran University is Iran’s highest ranking university.  There we had an engaging conversation with administrators and faculty members of the Faculty of World Studies in their brand new building over a delicious lunch.  The faculty is newly established and eager to make connections with universities in North America.

The Iman Khomeini Research Center was the last institution we visited.  The center is devoted to studying the thought of Iman Khomeini.

During the day I gained an impression of Iran as a society on the move.  As we traveled through the city, we saw lots of new construction.  The universities are clearly focused on growth and are moving forward with clear visions of their individual missions.  They are proud of what they are accomplishing and, from what we have seen so far, rightly so.

A common theme in both the Christian and the Islamic centers we visited was the commonality of Christian and Islamic faiths.    We were told that a good Muslim follows the teachings of Jesus Christ.  Our hosts shared with us their conviction that if all of us practiced our faith there would be no wars between us.  One man stated emphatically that the term “religious wars” was a “nonsense concept.”  All prophets have come to reduce war and bring justice.  A faculty member at Tehran University stated that our academic study should work for the reduction of pain in the world.

One of the realities that the Iranian people have to live with daily that is not necessarily evident to visitors is the constant threat of attack.  One faculty member shared with us that the other day as his family was watching television, his 8-year-old son asked him, “Are they going to kill us all?”  In a conversation later in the day, our host shared with us how living with this daily stress affects the health of the people of Iran.

Our day ended with a wonderful meal shared with Iranian university students in a beautiful garden setting.  We had delightful convesations with these bright and engaged young adults who were willing to share their ideas with us and were eager to hear our perspective on a variety of issues.

Throughout the day we enjoyed the warm Iranian hospitatlity that Daryl and Cindy promised us.  At each visit we were served fruit, pastries, candies and/or drinks.  In addition, our suitcases will be full of the many gifts we have received by our Iranian hosts.

Stay tuned for the next posting by Anita Stalter fromGoshen College.

Day 1 in Iran

October 4, 2008

Post by Ted Koontz, Professor of Ethics and Peace Studies at AMBS

Mural of Mary and Jesus (Tehran)

Mural of Mary and Jesus (Tehran)

Anita, Sally, Loren, Jim, Daryl, Cindy and I arrived safely and on time at about 12:15 this morning, getting to the hotel around 4. After some shopping (the women are quite striking in black from head to toe!), orientation walks, and lunch we set out for our first appointments. We started at Shahid Beheshti University on the north side of the city. The President greeted us warmly and described some of the many programs of the university which has about 600 faculty members and 12,000 students. They have a number of exchange programs currently and are interested in pursuing other ones. It seemed that our interests and institutions might connect best with their program in human rights and we proceeded to their building for conversation with leaders of that faculty. Their program is the only UNESCO Chair of Human Rights, Peace, and Democracy in the region and it is divided into five main groups: human rights, peace, democracy, philosophy and religion, and bioethics. In addition to academic work in these areas, they work with other organizations, especially in the areas of women’s and children’s rights. They seek to study how human rights are understood in different cultures and countries and look for a common understanding of human rights grounded in the reality that we are all human. Exchanges and workshops or conferences are good possibilities for exchanges.

At the Organization for Cultural and Islamic Relations, our host organization for the trip, Dr. Musalvi, its president, greeted us and explained its function. Its purpose is to coordinate educational and exchange program outside of Iran in order to improve and expand mutual understanding. This includes programs in a wide range of arts and religion, most coordinated by about 60 offices worldwide, and through Iranian Embassies. Emphasizing the importance of democracy and religion together guiding society wisely, he noted that neither one is sufficient alone.

He indicated that they had had good experience with Mennonites previously and openness to future cooperation. Simply being present with one another is one important way to increase understanding, especially because the media is often misleading. Coming together could take the form of jointly planned conferences, seminars or attendance at one another’s events. They would be happy to recommend experts for participation in conferences we might plan. Student and faculty exchanges are also possible. Topics of interest would include various issues in the social sciences, philosophy, social ethics, mysticism, etc. Because they coordinate exchanges between Iran and other countries, they would like to be involved in the basic planning of cooperative activities, (no signed MOUs) though we could respond directly to inquiries from universities and follow up on planning directly once basic agreement in reached.

At supper we had wonderful food (again), but discovered that one stereotype of Iranians is untrue. Our waiter demonstrated that not all Iranians are friendly and hospitable! He must have had a hard day.

We are looking forward to SLEEP, and to leaving tomorrow morning at 7:30 for a full day of appointments.

Tomorrow’s post will be written by Sally Weaver Sommer from Bluffton University.

Getting visas!

October 1, 2008

Post by J. Daryl Byler, MCC Rep for Iran

Cindy Byler visits pottery shop in Qom

Cindy Byler visits pottery shop in Qom

Six Mennonite universities plan to send their president, academic dean or a professor to Iran, Oct. 4-10, to explore possible professor and student exchanges with Iranian universities.

The participating Canadian and U.S. schools are Conrad Grebel University College (Waterloo, Ontario), Canadian Mennonite University (Winnipeg, Manitoba), Eastern Mennonite University (Harrisonburg, Virginia), Bluffton University (Bluffton, Ohio), Goshen College (Goshen, Indiana) and Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary (Elkhart, Indiana).  Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), which has worked in Iran for nearly 20 years, is sponsoring the trip.

Visas have been approved for 8 of the 9 trip participants — but actually picking up the visas at the Iranian Embassy in Ottawa and the Interests Section in Washington, D.C. has proved to be quite a challenge given the Eid holidays, which are celebrated at the end of Ramadan.

In Iran, the group will be hosted by the Center for Interreligious Dialogue — part of the Organization for Culture and Islamic Relations.

The delegation will visit universities in Tehran and Qom.