By Richard H. Humke
Special to The Courier-Journal

Louisville Courier-Journal, KY
July 2 2006

Iran has been off-limits for most Americans for the last 27 years,
since the beginning of the Iranian revolution in 1979 and the taking
of hostages at the American embassy in Tehran shortly thereafter.

Iranian-Americans and their families have continued to travel there
to visit, of course, but few other Americans have done so.

When the opportunity arose to visit Iran for 12 days, seven
Louisvillians eagerly joined 16 other persons from around the United
States and Britain to do so; I was pleased to be a part of that
group. The visit was sponsored by the Fellowship of Reconciliation,
an international peace-making group now approaching its 100th
anniversary. The Fellowship is experienced in sending groups of
visitors to places like Iran, where tensions between the United States
and that country are particularly great.

Before we left, we were questioned repeatedly by friends and family
about our sanity, and the question most often asked us was, "Aren't
you afraid?" Of course, we weren't afraid, or we probably wouldn't
have gone. But the question did plant some seeds of apprehension in
us nonetheless. What we found in Iran was a welcoming hospitality,
tinged with surprise, everywhere we went. "Thank you for coming." "I
can't believe you're Americans." "Did they really give you a visa?"

And most surprising of all: "I've never talked to an American."

Making a difference Such expressions of surprise helped us to realize
that we were accomplishing one of our goals: to present a friendly
face of America without the shrill rhetoric that so often accompanies
relations between our governments. We had no misapprehensions that we
could accomplish great things or change the direction of international
relations, but we did believe that each one of us could make the
difference that an individual can make.

We were not blind to the problems that we knew existed in Iran:
persecution of members of the Baha'i religion; zero tolerance for
homosexuals that could result in execution; political oppression
of opposition voices; widespread use of capital punishment and
restrictions on women. Nor did we think we could affect any of those
serious matters. We went to see and to listen and to learn.

We visited some of the many beautiful and ancient sites to be found
in Iran. Iran is not a country whose boundaries have been cobbled
together by Western powers, as Iraq was 75 years ago. It is an ancient
nation with a rich culture and history of which its people are rightly
very proud. Persepolis, Isfahan, Shiraz, Qom -- these places are not
very familiar to most Americans, but like Florence or Delphi, they
are rich in architectural and historical interest. I considered our
visiting them as more than going to tourist destinations. Our visits
were also acts of affirmation for our Iranian hosts.

There are religious minorities in Iran, which is 98 percent Muslim.

Twenty-five thousand Jews still call Iran home, a remnant of what was
once a large and thriving ancient community. We visited a synagogue in
Tehran and listened to its president talk about Jewish life in Iran
today. We would have liked to ask him about Israel, and particularly
about the Iranian president's inflammatory remarks about Israel,
but we knew that to do so would place him and our Iranian hosts in
a very difficult position.

We also visited an Armenian cathedral and its precincts, the Armenians
being the largest of a number of Christian groups in Iran totaling
as many as 250,000. Accepting the reality of living in an Islamic
republic, Christians, too, seemed to have a freedom to practice
their faith.

The Zoroastrians are the ancient, pre-Islamic religion of Iran, and
a visit to one of their centers and a talk (through an interpreter)
by one of their priests gave us further understanding of this very old
religion. They, too, appeared to be free to exercise their religious
faith within their own community.

It was only by accident that we were in Iran at a particularly tense
time, shortly after Seymour Hersh alleged in The New Yorker that our
government was considering the use of nuclear weapons against Iran's
underground uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz. We visited the
village of Natanz and on the way passed that nuclear facility.

Our destination in Natanz, however, was a home for girls who for
various reasons were no longer able to live with their parents. The
home had been begun by a gentle-faced mullah who joined us and the
girls for a sumptuous Iranian lunch which they served us as we sat
on lovely carpets spread on the floor. As these beautiful and very
intelligent young women, enveloped in their chadors, spoke to us
about their hopes and dreams for their lives, I could not get out of
my mind the specter of those nuclear weapons which the United States
might possibly use. Because, of course, there would be no need for
those beautiful girls to have plans for the future. There would be
no future for them.

War 'cannot be the answer' I came back more convinced than I had
ever been that war cannot be the answer to our difficulties with
Iran. We must learn to talk together and to negotiate in good faith
-- and so must they, of course -- without the threat of destroying
one another. This great country of ours surely can take the lead in
doing that.

The Rev. Richard H. Humke is a retired Episcopal priest who lives in
Louisville. For many years, he was rector of St. Matthews Episcopal