Last May I was privileged to visit the Islamic Republic of Iran at a time when tensions were rising over their nuclear power program. For the past 28 years, the United States and Iran have been locked in a virtual state of cold war with no diplomatic relations and very limited contact between Iranians and people from the United States. At that time, our delegation traveled to Iran in an attempt to thaw relations, deepen our understanding of Islam, and learn what we could of the hopes, fears and aspirations of the Iranian people. Ours was a nongovernmental delegation and our visits, meetings and purpose were focused on the people, religious communities and grassroots organizations.

Since that time relations between our two nations have worsened. On September 20, 2006, some 45 U.S. religious leaders met with Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in New York City to discuss the role that religious communities can play in reversing the deepening crisis between Iran and the U.S. At the end of that 75-minute conversation, President Ahmadinejad invited the group to come to Tehran for further conversations.

Following the meeting in New York, a smaller delegation of those present spent a day on Capitol Hill briefing the chief aides of both Democratic and Republican leaders in the House and Senate. The reception was overwhelmingly positive with all involved asking to meet with the group again and expressing thanks for keeping this "track two" type of diplomacy alive.

The primary purpose for our current delegation to Iran (February 17-25) is to continue to dialogue with religious and political leaders in Iran and pursue issues first raised with President Ahmadinejad in New York City. Specifically, the delegation plans to highlight and draw attention to the source of each nation's pain and mistrust and to understand what divides us historically.

While in Iran we are discussing how people of faith can help lead our nations in a process of reconciliation and healing. Our group also plans to explore concerns that each of us have, to correct misunderstandings and to deepen our comprehension of each other's points of view. We welcome the opportunity to dialogue with the President of Iran and other Muslim religious leaders, so that this process gains the attention of leaders in both Iran and the United States.

Additionally, our delegation will meet with Christian leaders in Iran for fellowship and to strengthen friendships developed with Iranians on prior visits and at international conferences. Finally, upon returning from the trip, we anticipate a media and grassroots education campaign and meetings with U.S. government officials, all aimed at strengthening U.S.-Iranian relations.

Many questions arise from our visit, both here in Iran and back home in the U.S. I would like to share with you the thinking and perspective which our group brings to some of these basic questions.

Much concern has been raised over the recent two-day conference in Tehran in which President Ahmadinejad again raised questions about the reality of the Holocaust and the State of Israel. Our delegation members were disappointed by reports of the conference and statements made by President Ahmadinejad. The delegation recognizes the Holocaust as historical fact and one of the great tragedies in human history. We also advocate for a peaceful and just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and believe that any solution should provide peace with justice for all people.

The issue of President Ahmadinejad's previous statements about the Holocaust was raised in the New York City meeting. In his response, President Ahmadinejad did not deny that the Holocaust happened but asked why the Palestinians are suffering because of events that happened in Europe, and why so much attention is being paid to persons who died in the Holocaust and very little attention to the millions of other civilians who died in World War II.

Also of deep concern is the disposition of Iran's nuclear power program. It is important to note that Iran has signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and, as a signer, has the legal right to develop civilian nuclear energy. At the New York City meeting, President Ahmadinejad said that Iran's nuclear program is for peaceful purposes and that Iran is not producing nuclear weapons. He declared nuclear weapons to be at odds with Islamic beliefs and called for a common standard of inspections for all nations who have nuclear programs. These sentiments have been echoed by others here during our visits. Yesterday, in a meeting with Ayatollah Mohammad Emami Kashani, Friday Prayer Leader of Tehran, the Ayatollah emphasized that Iran's nuclear program is not a weapons program and that, in fact, nuclear weapons are incompatible with Islamic law.

While there is no foolproof way to judge the veracity of assertions about Iran's nuclear program, many who attended the New York City meeting were heartened by his comments and they have been reinforced in our meetings here thus far. The members of our delegation oppose any efforts toward nuclear proliferation and call upon all nations with nuclear weapons to work toward the
abolition of these weapons with the urgency and sincerity demanded by the World Court's decision.

Our delegation plans to meet with the Archbishop of the Armenian Church in Iran, the leader of the Iranian evangelical Protestants, women seated in the Iranian parliament, religious leaders from Qom (the Iranian religious university city), former President Mohammad Khatami and current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The primary focus of these discussions will be how religious communities from both nations can cooperate to promote peace and good will. During the past 50 years, Iranians and Americans have experienced trauma in their relationship with one another. Our delegation has come to Tehran in a humble posture of listening and learning as well as to raise difficult questions.

Some have pointed out that there is a risk that our delegation will be used by the government of Iran to further its own purposes. Certainly we understand this. 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 our delegation.

Upon our return to the U.S., delegates will participate in meetings in Washington, DC with elected officials.

Peacemaking requires that we take risks. But the urgency of the moment, the rising tensions and continued misunderstandings that are driving our nations toward increased hostility demand that we take those risks if we are to be peacemakers.