Dr. Alex Roy Medley, General Secretary of American Baptist Churches, chairs a senior section of churches which has over 1.3 million members and 5200 subgroups. Dr. Medley’s efforts to bring peace into the relations with the Muslims of all over the world ended in him being recognized not only as a religious leader, but also as a philanthropic figure and a true believer in freedom of religion, and was later invited to Beirut for a delivery of his lecture on how Baptism sees the concept of religion freedom in the US. His constant participation in peace-seeking programs worldwide has been another prominent feature of him introducing him as an advocate of anti-violent groups.
On July 2009, Dr. Medley and a committee of 30 of American Muslim and Christian religious leaders visited Iran to take part in a conference about “a World Devoid of Violence and Extremism in the Eye of Abrahamic Religions”.
AVA Diplomatic’s Exclusive Interview with Dr. Alex Roy Medley, General Secretary of American Baptist Churches.
Interview by Mohammadreza Nazari
What is your most important duty as General Secretary of American Baptist Churches to help the world peace come true?
In addition to living the gospel of peace of Jesus as a Christian, advocating for religious liberty for all persons in all societies is one of the greatest ways I can work for peace today. Religious liberty is important to Baptists because we were persecuted in our early days in England and colonial America. Speaking before the Arab Group for Muslim Christian dialogue a few years ago, I referred to religious liberty as that which creates “common ground for the common good.” In a world where human migration has brought people of different faiths to live in common society, religious liberty enables each to worship as God leads them and contribute to a common society for the good of all.
Considering Your Excellency’s activities to fight hunger and poverty all around the world, do you have any plans for the Middle East in particular?
American Baptists have been active in support of efforts by the Baptist community in Lebanon to respond to the human needs of refugees from Syria for food, water, clothing and shelter. In addition, as a member organization of Church World Service we have participated in development and disaster relief efforts in Pakistan and Afghanistan. As American Baptists our methodology in such enterprises is not to plan for others, but to assist the plans of those who live in an area of need. We also partner with Baptist World Aid and Habitat for Humanity in such efforts. Our aid work in areas of disaster and need are always for all affected regardless of their faith. We do so gladly as an expression of the love of God for all.
What is your main objective of traveling to Iran?
Traveling to Iran was a wonderful opportunity to explore as Christian and Muslim religious leaders how our two faith communities can build bridges of peace and understanding with own another. As the letter that was sent from world Muslim leaders to the world Christian community, “A Common Word Between Us and You” states, I believe that until Muslims and Christians live in peace with one another, the world shall not live in peace. One of the holiest tasks given to our two faith communities is the work of peace as the concrete expression of the compassion and mercy of God. Both our faith communities have those who inflame sentiments against the other. Becuase we do share the common word of love of God and love of neighbor in our respective scriptures, we have a strong basis for mutual understanding and respect as we dialog with one another.
What have the most important topics been you discussed during your stay in Iran?
Central to our conversations as American and Iranian religious leaders was discussion of our common concern about violence and extremism in the name of God. We discussed how love, reason and law in service to our sacred texts can build pathways to peace between our faiths and our nations. We also had a vigorous discussion about religious liberty and how we each understand it and how respect for the faith of others is rooted in our scriptures. We ended our conversations with a strong mutual commitment to continuing our dialogue and efforts to end violence and extremism in the name of God.
How have the Iranian officials responded to your comments?
I was delighted with the reception we received. Our conversations were honest about the difficulties and differences that exist between our faith communities and nations both historically and more recently. At the same time there was a genuine commitment on both our parts to peace. The scholars and religious leaders we met were learned and spiritual people who offered well-informed and reasoned contributions to our dialogue. The papers that were presented by them were stimulating in analysis and thought. On both an intellectual and a spiritual level, I delighted in our time together. Likewise, we found that our thoughts and remarks as American Muslims and Christians received a respectful hearing, especially as we discussed the ways that Muslims and Christians in America are working together at many levels to end divisions among us. The Shoulder to Shoulder effort in the US is a common effort by Christians, Jews and Muslims in our country to end Islamaphobia in America. Together we are at work to guarantee that Muslims in America will have the same rights and privileges in our country as any other citizen. Together we have also spoken and acted very publicly when those rights have not been respected.
How did your American friends react to your decision for traveling to Iran?
There was concern about how safe it would be, but actually some of that was dissipated by a segment about Iran on the US news magazine, “Sixty Minutes.” Its positive portrayal of Iran did much to quieter those concerns.
How different did you find Iran from what you had in mind before?
I was deeply impressed by the culture of this ancient yet modern country. The high level of education of the country, including that of women, was an exciting discovery. The learned religious, university, and commercial leaders we met impressed us all as people who are proud of their country and its democracy. This included Christians and Jews as well. Everywhere we went in public we were well received. One young man in a market we were visiting exemplified the warm welcome offered us when he said to me, “You must return to my shop again, not to buy but to be friends.”
In your opinion, how much can such consultations between the officials of the two countries lead to the lessening of tensions between them?
As religious leaders we are not naive about the challenges our two countries face in rebuilding relations. Our delegation did not come as political leaders but as American Muslim and Christian religious leaders who believe that our faiths offer resources critical to the process of reconciliation. Both Iranians and Americans are deeply religious people, therefore it is important to address them on the basis of the values our faiths teach of compassion, justice, and love of God and neighbor. We hope that we have begun a dialogue and a process of rebuilding relationships that will continue to provide our national leaders with the support they need to pursue better relationships between Iran and the US.
How optimistic are your toward the future of Iran-US diplomatic relations?
As a person of faith, I am a person of hope. We have seen dramatic shifts in world society that could not have been anticipated such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of apartheid in South Africa. A dramatic and symbolic visit of President Nixon to China helped end years of political and military hostility between our two countries. I pray that such a breakthrough might occur between our two countries and fulfill the hopes of people of good will in each.
How much do you believe Mr. Rouhani’s Presidency can contribute to creating a new chapter in Iran-US history?
I speak only for myself when I say that I hope that the presidents of our two countries will vigorously pursue building relationships of respect and cooperation between our two countries that contribute to peace and stability within the world. American Baptists have long advocated for diplomatic rather than military solutions to the issues of the Middle East.
What have your activities been to fight extremism and conducting dialogs between Muslim and Christian societies?
Baptists believe that religious liberty is an essential human right necessary for people to exercise faith that is pleasing to God, namely, faith that is freely chosen and freely exercised. When the attacks of 9/11 occurred, I immediately communicated as the then head of the American Baptist Churches in New Jersey asking them to not view all Muslims as extremists and calling upon them to protect their Muslim neighbors and their rights as an expression of our Christian faith. Soon after that I was elected head of communion for our national denomination. In that role I spoke against some of the negative characterization a of Islam that were being issued by leaders of other Baptist groups in the US as counter to the spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ and his teachings. In my role I welcomed the document,”A Common Word Between Us and You,” and have used it as the basis for two national dialogues with the Muslim community in America. We have also held three regional dialogues across the country and are working now to create another national dialogue that will focus on Muslim and Baptist religious leaders age 40 and under.
We were among those who founded the Shoulder to Shoulder effort against Islamaphobia in the US and we together with other Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders have denounced incidents such as the burning of the Koran by a pastor who had only 30 something people in his church.
In Burma, I have spoken not only about the rights of the Christian minority to religious liberty but the rights of the Rohingya as well. Likewise on a visit to the Republic of Georgia, in the past two years, I participated in meetings with provincial religious leaders in Batumi to advocate for the Muslims in that city who had been refused permission to build a second mosque. A month following that visit, I received notification that a building permit had been issued.
As the national leader of American Baptist Churches, I have counted it essential that I speak and act, both as a believer in Jesus and as a Baptist committed to religious liberty, for the things that make for peace and for the right of religious freedom for all.
Your Excellency has a specific viewpoint toward the peace trend the Palestinians have been pursuing with Israel and was among the 56 figures who signed the letter to George Bush. Do you still maintain the same stance?
American Baptists have long advocated for a two-state solution that respects the right of the Palestinians to a nation and the right of Israel to exist. We have also consistently urged diplomatic rather than military solutions to the issues that face the countries of the Middle East. We believe that just and nonviolent means of resolving these conflicts are required to break the cycle of violence. As a religious leader, I pray constantly for peace in the Middle East and other parts of the world.
Have you held any negotiations with the Iranian officials about your takes on bringing peace to the Middle East?
I as a religious leader did not venture into discussing specific political solutions with our hosts concerning the Middle East. Certainly the topic we were addressing about violence and extremism in religion has much to say to the issues in terms of how we as religious leaders can begin to change the way we live together in common society. As an example I share with you the promises Muslim and Baptist leaders participating in the first national dialogue made to each other.