A group of U.S. religious leaders, including a Baptist minister, met two-and-one-half hours Sunday with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It was the first time an American delegation had met in Iran with an Iranian president since the Islamic revolution in 1979.

“The Iranian nation does not have any feeling of hatred and opposition towards the American people, and we believe that all people are respectful and given the common grounds people have, they could achieve peace and justice,” Ahmadinejad reportedly told the 13 leaders, representing United Methodist, Episcopal, Catholic, Baptist, Evangelical, Quaker and Mennonite traditions.

Back in the United States, members of the delegation on Monday called on the U.S. and Iran to “immediately engage in direct, face-to-face talks,” cease using language that labels the other as an “enemy” and promote people-to-people exchanges between religious and political leaders. They asked the American government to welcome a similar delegation of Iranian religious leaders to the U.S.

“As people of faith, we are committed to working toward these and other confidence-building measures, which we hope will move our two nations from the precipice of war to a more just and peaceful relationship,” the group said in a statement.

The thing the delegation described as most encouraging from the meeting with Ahmadinejad was “a clear declaration from him that Iran has no intention to acquire or use nuclear weapons, as well as a statement that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can only be solved through political, not military means.”

The delegation quoted Ahmadinejad as saying, “I have no reservation about conducting talks with American officials if we see some goodwill.”

The delegation included Shanta Premawardhana, associate general secretary for interfaith relations at National Council of Churches, U.S.A. A native of Sri Lanka, Premawardhana is a former Baptist pastor in Chicago and vice president of the Alliance of Baptists.

In addition to Ahmadinejad’s statement, Premawardhana said, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, under whose authority the nuclear program rests, has issued a “fatwa” (edict) that making or using nuclear weapons goes against Islamic teaching.

“Ahmadinejad comes across as a very religious man,” Premawardhana observed. “He is very unlikely to go against a religious edict.”

“It has been an important week,” Premawardhana said, offering reflections on the trip in a blog.

On Tuesday Premawardhana spoke at a three-hour meeting in Tehran called “Quest for Truth,” discussing the importance of faith groups–both Muslim and Christian–finding common ground for peace.

“Interfaith dialogue strengthens our own theology,” Premawardhana said. “This is a new paradigm that has arrived out of many years of engaging in dialogue.”

The delegation on Monday spoke to reporters at the National Press Club in Washington. “As Christian leaders from the United States, 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,” delegates said in a prepared statement. “We believe military action is not the answer, and that God calls us to just and peaceful relationships within the global community.”

State television showed Ahmadinejad meeting with the American religious leaders. Government media quoted him as blaming the U.S. government for initiating and continuing animosity against Iran. “Due to the repeated mistakes made by the American leadership, the image of the United States is becoming tarnished in the region,” the president added, according to Focus Information Agency.

Dave Robinson of Pax Christi USA said in an on-line dispatch from Iran Feb. 20 that some had pointed out the risk the delegation would be used by the government of Iran to further its own purposes.

“Certainly we understand this,” he said. “But to do nothing could provide the impetus for governments to continue posturing themselves for conflict and suffering. Dialogue is a vital nonviolent step in reducing the potential deadly outcome of heightened political rhetoric and posturing. We are taking all steps possible to ensure that our communications are clear and not open to misinterpretation. Furthermore, U.S. officials are aware of and have affirmed this delegation of U.S. religious leaders traveling to Iran.”

The delegation grew out of relationships developed through the Mennonite Central Committee’s ongoing work in Iran, which began following a massive earthquake in June 1990. Iranian officials asked the MCC to organize a meeting between U.S. religious leaders and Ahmadinejad when he came to New Yorkaddress the U.N. General Assembly last September. At the meeting the Iranian president invited the 45 U.S. religious leaders attending to continue the conversation in Tehran.

In 2005 U.S. religious leaders strongly condemned comments by Ahmadinejad calling for the obliteration of Israel and claiming the Holocaust was a “myth.”

Last year Iran was host to a two-day conference for Holocaust deniers including David Duke, a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan and author of Jewish Supremacism: My Awakening to the Jewish Question.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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