James Jennings, far right, greets then-Iranian President Khatami in 2005. (James Jennings photo)
James Jennings, far right, greets then-Iranian President Khatami in 2005. (James Jennings photo)

Baptist leads U.S. academic delegation to Iran

James Jennings, founder of CBF-partner Conscience International and a member at First Baptist in Gainesville, Ga., is leading a delegation of scholars to Tehran this week for peace talks. He is joined by McAfee dean and professor Robert Nash and a dozen other scholars from around the U.S. 

By Jeff Brumley

While U.S. and Iranian diplomats make international headlines for negotiations on nuclear energy and weapons, a group of American and Iranian academics is quietly meeting in Tehran this week to heal the broken relationship between the two nations.

And the American delegation, which departed for Iran on Saturday, is led by one moderate Baptist and includes another. Both said they are keen to plant seeds that could eventually result in reducing tensions in the Middle East.

The visit arranged by Conscience International founder James Jennings, a member of First Baptist Church in Gainesville, Ga., is meant mostly to break the ice between the two academic communities. The hope is that more visits — and thawing — will result.

What observers should not expect is any kind of treaty or promises on improving the treatment of Christians in Iran, said participant Robert Nash, an associate dean and professor of missions and world religions at Mercer University's McAfee School of Theology.

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“You’re at least starting to have the conversations” necessary to help “the melting of tension between the U.S. and Iran,” said Nash, a former global missions coordinator for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

Nash, a member at Druid Hills Baptist Church in Atlanta and interim pastor at First Baptist in nearby Jasper, is one of more than a dozen scholars from as many American universities participating in the 10-day venture led by Jennings’ U.S. Academics for Peace.

That organization for years has held peace-promoting encounters with heads of state, other politicians and academics in some of the world’s most dangerous and strife-torn nations, including Iraq, Syria and the Sudan.

‘Election ... changed the picture’

The visit comes at a delicate moment in U.S.-Iranian relations. Monday was the first day of a new deal between the two countries in which Iran agrees to halt controversial nuclear operations in exchange for the easing of economic sanctions.

Iran has also been under the spotlight for its inclusion in peace talks over Syria. It’s also been flagged by watchdog groups for persecuting Christians in Iran.

It’s not the first time Baptists have been involved with easing political tensions between the United States and Iran. In 1979, Jimmy Allen, the last moderate president of the Southern Baptist Convention, plead for the release of the American hostages in Tehran and was criticized for appearing accommodating.

But the diplomatic atmosphere is much changed, thanks to recent elections in Iran, Jennings told ABPnews/Herald.

“In Iran there was an election and that changed the picture,” he said, adding that his meetings with Iran’s previous president, the right-wing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had gone nowhere.

“When the new guy was elected, there began to be change — the moderates are not in control in Iran.”

‘The hoped-for result’

Jennings is no stranger to Iran. He first worked there in 1991 to help refugees from the Gulf War. The 2003 earthquake in Bam, Iran, killed some 15,000 and brought Conscience International there for relief work. In 2005, his U.S. Academics for Peace visited for talks at different Iranian universities.

“This is my first time back since the thawing out” of relations between the United States and Iran, he said.

And he is confident the current visit can make a difference — at least in the long term.

“A lessening of tensions is the hoped for result.”

There’s a chance for that because, unlike politicians, scholars often are able to speak with each other candidly. In this case, Jennings’ group will be meeting with the Tehran-based Institute for Political and International Studies.

“People in the academy have to speak truth to each other,” he said. “We’re not trying to float high-doctrinaire ideals as politicians are.”

If discussions go well, Jennings said, a schedule for higher education exchanges will be worked out that possibly could contribute to concrete improvements in relations.

‘Removing the divide’

The American delegation is made up of experts in a variety of fields, from Middle East politics and foreign affairs to religion and Islamic studies. Nash fits into the latter two categories.

“I grew up on a predominantly Muslim island in the Philippines, so I have a passion for removing the divide between Islam and Christianity,” Nash said before his Saturday departure.

He’s worked breaking down those barriers through interfaith efforts in the United States. In Tehran, his goal is to press the idea that there are many Christians, Jews and Muslims who desire reconciliation and peace.

“What I’ll be arguing for is that people in these three religions actually have similar goals and hopes and confidence in God’s ability to bring about his purpose in the world,” Nash said.

Prior to their departure, the U.S. Academics for Peace participants did not know for certain what the agenda of the meetings would be.

“We put together a conference schedule and sent it to them,” Nash said. But they had not heard back from the Iranian counterparts.

‘Who knows the impact’

Nash said the issue of Christian persecution in Iran is not one of the scheduled topics of discussion. But that doesn’t mean it cannot be broached.

“Part of my experience with situations like this is you have to sort of feel your way as you go, and I don’t think there is any problem with asking some hard and challenging questions in the right context,” he said.

More likely is that topic will be more easily discussed in future exchanges, he added.

“Who knows the impact this thing is going to have,” he added.