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November 17, 2001, Saturday

Religion Journal; Iran's President Speaks On Faith and Civilization


One widely praised development since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is an upsurge in formal discussions between people of different faiths, with Muslims very much involved.

Among these events, one of the most interesting took place on Monday at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York, where the Islamic representative was none other than the president of Iran, Mohammad Khatami.

Mr. Khatami, known as a reformer in Iran's Islamic republic, was elected in a landslide vote in 1997. The event at the cathedral, titled ''The Role of Religion in the Dialogue Among Civilizations,'' came while he was in New York to attend a special session of the United Nations General Assembly.

Mr. Khatami's extensive background in philosophy -- Western as well as Islamic -- was evident in his speech, in which he commented on ideas of Kant, Hegel, Nietzche, Freud and Marx, among others.

Several local religious figures also spoke at the event, including his host, Bishop Mark Sisk of New York, whose jurisdiction includes the Episcopal cathedral, and William F. Vendley, general secretary of the World Conference on Religion and Peace, the organization that convened the event.

In an interview, Bishop Sisk said he was especially pleased at how strongly Mr. Khatami struck two points: a respect for pluralism and a condemnation of terrorism.

''Clearly, his intention is to share with the West a vision of Islam that embraces a pluralistic society,'' the bishop said.

''This was not a superficial, 'Oh, you know, we've all got to be good folks and get along,' '' the bishop said. ''This is someone who has thought very deeply about matters of faith and meaning and how people understand themselves.''

In reference to terrorism, according to a transcript, Mr. Khatami lamented the development of ''active nihilism'' as a social and political force -- now so dangerous, he said, that it threatens human existence.

''This new form of active nihilism assumes various names,'' he said, ''and it is so tragic and unfortunate that some of those names bear a semblance of religiosity and some proclaim spirituality. Vicious terrorists who concoct weapons out of religion are superficial literalists clinging to simplistic ideas.''

The Iranian president also said that in ''chaotic times,'' people ought to turn to God with a view also to reaching out to one another.

''Let us all call unto God and ask him to bestow on us a language to be understood and a capacity to listen and understand,'' he said.

Dr. Vendley said Mr. Khatami was proposing an alliance of thoughtful, religiously rooted moderates, from across faith lines, who could offer a vision for society that used neither materialistic secularism nor religious fundamentalism as its starting point.

He said the conference would post Mr. Khatami's speech on its Web site, www.religionsforpeace.org, by early next week.

First, but Also One of Many

The nation's Roman Catholic bishops made history on Tuesday when they elected as their president Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., who became the first African-American prelate to head the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

While taking nothing away from that distinction, one might note that Bishop Gregory also fits a pattern among the men the bishops have elected as their presidents.

He is known as a consensus-builder, as were other recent past presidents. And he also serves a Midwestern diocese, as did no fewer than 7 of his 11 predecessors. Four of those men were serving dioceses in Ohio at the time of their election, while three others came from Michigan, Minnesota and Missouri.

One of the Ohio prelates was Joseph Bernardin, archbishop of Cincinnati when he was elected in 1974. In 1982, he was appointed Chicago's archbishop, then named a cardinal the next year, after which he asked the Vatican to elevate a Chicago priest as auxiliary bishop.

That priest was Wilton Gregory, who went on to serve with the cardinal for a decade, until the pope dispatched him to head the Belleville diocese.

Bishop Gregory said he had been fortunate to have had mentors who were role models. Among them, ''in a special way,'' he said, was Cardinal Bernardin, who ''had the courage to ask the Holy Father to name a 35-year-old priest to be his auxiliary.''

Thanksgiving Memorials

To encourage Jews on Thanksgiving to remember the victims of Sept. 11, the American Jewish Committee has published a short pamphlet of prayers and rituals for the holiday meal. Titled, ''America's Table: A Thanksgiving Haggadah,'' it says the holiday will be different this year, ''because there are more than 5,000 empty places at America's table.''

The text calls for lighting a memorial candle, vividly recalls what happened on Sept. 11 and closes with prayers and expressions of thanks for civil freedoms. It also includes quotations from the Bible, two rabbis, Albert Einstein and Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who praised New York in his speech to the United Nations as having its greatest strength in its ethnic diversity.

A committee spokeswoman said the pamphlet had been posted on its Internet site, www.ajc.org.

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