An intriguing letter of congratulations from Iran

Below is a statement I received today broadly distributed from Dr. … , a former official of the the Iranian government under the “progressive” Prime Minister Muhammad Khatami.  Dr. …  is notable for his efforts to create relations between Muslim and Christian theologians through an institute which he founded and directs in Tehran.  He is also notable for his involvement in the demonstrations against the government of Iran during the 2009 demonstrations, and for the abuse he clearly suffered when he was imprisoned for it.  He went into prison a portly short man and came out many months later evidently 100 pounds lighter.  The time spent in custody and the lost weight clearly discounted the statements of loyalty he made when he was finally released.  Before his ordeal he paid a visit to Washington University in St Louis as well as to Covenant Seminary, whose faculty had visited him in Tehran some months before, so he has friends here who have followed his career and taken note of the abuse he has evidently suffered at the hands of his own government, dominated as it is by a kabal of less progressive Shiite theologians.

Now he is resurfacing as the head of his Institute and making a statement of great interest because it seems to depart from the usual rhetoric of the Islamic Republic.  Here, in his statement of congratulations to Christians in their time of celebration, is a condemnation of dictatorship and even a call for the Islamic regimes of the world to allow non-Muslims to practice their faiths.

The Institute … is honored to compliment New Year to you and your colleagues. Coincidence of New Year and birthday of Christ shows that religion is the most powerful factor in human life, which has been abused either it is able to solve huge problems of humanity. so that we invite all religions to note common subjects and make dialogue about them, to solve man’s problems also to achieve the spirituality. The biggest event of world in the last year, was fall of dictators in Muslim’s countries.  Spirit of the struggle against dictatorship was Islam-willing and once again it confirmed the importance of religion in human life. we, in our turn, request of new leaders and authorities in Islamic countries to accept actual share of other religions and their faithfuls, grant them their full rights of citizenship so that all religions will be able to expand intellectuality and theism in the world, to replace peace instead of current violence.  Accept good wishes of my colleagues and me, in the Institute … for New Year. [signed] … [from] Iran- Tehran

Dr … is proposing that the “new leaders and authorities in Islamic countries accept … other religions and their faithfuls [followings], [and] grant them their full rights of citizenship ….”  This plea for tolerance of other religious groups can hardly be other than a challenge to his own government, which famously cannot bear dissent or unauthorized religious practice.  Buried in his congratulations to those of us in the Western world — I’m sure it went out to his whole address list — is a  veiled critique of his own political context, one that, as he says, has “abused” religion.  I hope he can be safe in such a place; Der …  knows by experience how painful it can be to those who embarrass a dictatorial regime.