A late-February meeting between representatives of American Christian denominations and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad amounted to "a shameful betrayal of American values and the Christian-Jewish relationship," the Anti-Defamation League said over the weekend.
"By meeting with Ahmadinejad, these American Christian leaders are collaborating with a dangerous despot who calls for the destruction of Israel and denies the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust," said ADL national director Abraham Foxman.
The meeting, held in Teheran on February 24, was part of a visit by 13 representatives of American Christian denominations, including Quakers, Mennonites, Episcopalians, Baptists, United Methodists and Roman Catholics, meant as a call for dialogue between the governments of Iran and the US.
"We traveled to the Islamic Republic of Iran at this time of increased tension believing that it is possible to build bridges of understanding between our two countries," read a statement put out by the National Council of Churches USA, which organized the mission.
According to the NCC, Ahmadinejad made several statements during the meeting that were "most encouraging," including a declaration that Iran had no intention of acquiring or using nuclear weapons and an assertion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict "can only be solved through political, not military means."
According to an account of the meeting by Dr. Shanta Premawardhana, director of interfaith relations for the NCC, Ahmadinejad reacted with annoyance when challenged over the Holocaust denial conference held in Teheran in December. He was upset at having to explain once again his reasons for holding it, and asked if it was the influence of the Zionists that caused the question to be asked.
"What is it with Zionists and America?" he asked, according to Premawardhana. "Anytime anyone says anything against the Zionists, it creates problems in the US. Are Zionists ruling America? I refuse to believe that Zionists have so much power that you have to ask this again."
Premawardhana said that while Ahmadinejad reiterated that "he does not deny the reality of the Holocaust," he said he "believes that its disastrous effects are exaggerated to provide legitimacy for the State of Israel."
According to Premawardhana, Ahmadinejad "questioned why the event should not be studied, giving a place to all opinions. 'Why do you permit questions on the very existence of God, but not about the existence of the Holocaust?' he asked."
Nevertheless, the Christian leaders came out of the meeting "encouraged," Premawardhana said, primarily because Ahmadinejad told the group he has "no reservation about conducting talks with American officials if we see some goodwill."