Spiritual diplomacy has emerged between Washington and Tehran.
Back from a recent visit to Iran, U.S. President Barack Obama’s spiritual adviser said he conveyed a message from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to the White House.
“I probably shouldn’t have brought that up at all,” Joel Hunter, a senior pastor of Northland Church in Florida, said in an interview with VOA’s Persian service. “That was a message given to me in privacy, so I can’t tell you any more about it.”
Still, the revelation is coming at a sensitive time as the U.S., the West and Iran are engaging in deep talks to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Iranian government spokesman Mohammad Bager Nowbakht denied that a message was conveyed to Hunter, telling Tehran's Mehr News Agency, “There is no need for such a message.”
“If there are negotiations similar to the telephone conversation they [Rouhani and Obama] had in the past, this will be announced,” he told Mehr. "We are not going to hide anything from the people.”
But Hunter said he is sure he got the message.
“All I can tell you is, I was speaking to [Rouhani’s] chief of staff, his chief of staff relayed a message that he’d just gotten off the phone and, so, I don’t know what exactly is going on,” he told VOA.
Full interview with Rev. Hunter:
Hunter said he is short on envoy experience.
“I know I probably should not have brought it up because there are delicate political nuances to be negotiated here,” he said. “And so I’m sorry if I put someone in a bad position over there.”
But when asked if was happy with the message, Hunter said, “Very.”
Hunter, who led a delegation of U.S. religious leaders to the Islamic republic late last month, said the reason the group went was to have religious talks among religious leaders as a way to further peace and understanding between the two countries.
“We went over hoping that we would build trust between our countries and between our respective religions, because when our governments negotiate, there is really no trust between our two countries,” he said.
“Iran is unique in all of the countries of the Middle East because they define themselves as a religious country,” Hunter said.
“Their leadership is religious so, therefore, if there is to be trust gained, if there is to be ultimately peace between our countries, it will more likely happen because religious leaders have had a conversation than only if political leaders have tried to negotiate some policy or something,” he added.
In fact, he said, “in all of our conversations, we try to stay away from politics, even though all of us have connections with those in our respective governments.”
“This is an independent visit. We didn’t go over as a delegation representing our government. We didn’t go over trying to negotiate any kind of relationship between our countries,” Hunter said.
Americans held in Iran
During conversations with Iranian authorities, Hunter said the issue of several Americans being held in Iran.
Hunter said the Iranian officials “were very receptive” to the discussion.
“They even guided us toward the proper person, told us how to make our request. … We felt like they were very hospitable when we were making our plea,” he added.
“One of the things we have talked about in our conversations [has been] our concern over people who have … met legal trouble because of religious violations. So … we talked about Pastor [Saeed] Abedini and others who are incarcerated there,” Hunter said.
Abedini is an Iranian American Christian pastor imprisoned in Iran since 2012 on charges of undermining national security through his Christian activities in Iran.
A State Department official said in an email that the United States is aware of independent initiatives by various U.S. religious figures to foster interfaith dialogue with Iranian religious scholars, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported.
"We commend such efforts to promote interfaith tolerance and religious freedom, a foreign policy priority for the Department," the official said.