The visit by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Columbia University earlier this week was international news,
sparking a tremendous debate over the propriety of inviting a man who has spoken of destroying Israel and cast doubt on the historicity of the Holocaust to speak at an American college. On the other hand, his visit with over 140 North American religious leaders garnered almost no attention. According to the New York Times:

After two days of prickly confrontations with critics at Columbia University and the United Nations, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran held a friendly, even warm, exchange yesterday with Christian leaders from the United States and Canada convinced that dialogue is the only way to prevent war.

The session, held under tight security at a chapel across the street from the United Nations, was a reminder that Mr. Ahmadinejad is a religious president of a religious nation who relishes speaking on a religious plane. He spent his 20 allotted minutes at the start of the two-hour meeting recounting the chain of prophets central to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and the commonality of their messages.

He took questions from a panel that included a Quaker, a Catholic, an Anglican, a Baptist and a representative of the interfaith World Council of Churches, some of whom separately said they had been criticized by other religious leaders for sitting down with the Iranian president. Given the furor over Mr. Ahmadinejad’s earlier appearances, there was no advance publicity.

The organizers said that they had pressed hard to find a Jewish leader to join the panel of questioners, but that those invited declined because they could not win support from Jewish organizations.

Gee, I wonder why?

“My heart was broken that there was so little support from other religions to be here,” said Mary Ellen McNish, general secretary of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker group that helped sponsor the event. “If we don’t walk down this path of dialogue, we’re going to end up in conflagration.”

Speaking of those “other religions”:

[T]he Bahais, a minority religious group that has suffered persecution in Iran, said they supported these efforts at dialogue with the Iranian government. They had been invited to the prior meetings, but the Iranian side refused to come if Bahais were there, said Kit Bigelow, director of external affairs, National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahais of the United States.

No word on whether any of the participants asked about the severe persecution that Bahais suffer in Iran. But the Christians weren’t going to let a little thing like that stand in the way of their effort at private diplomacy:

Though Mr. Ahmadinejad’s answers differed little, the tone of the session was a marked contrast to the verbal pummeling he received at Columbia University on Monday, when the university’s president, Lee C. Bollinger, called the Iranian president either “brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated” for his stance on the Holocaust.

At the clerics’ meeting, Albert Lobe, executive director of the Mennonite Central Committee, said pointedly, “We mean to extend to you the hospitality which a head of state deserves.”

I’m sure they would have done the same for Augusto Pinochet while he ruled Chile, Baby Doc Duvalier when he ruled Haiti, any of the distinguished members of the Burmese military junta, or any of the other well-known right-wing national leaders of the last several decades. /sarc

Mr. [Glenn] Stassen [ethics professor at Fuller Seminary] asked President Ahmadinejad, if the United States could guarantee no aggression against Iran, “could there be an Iranian guarantee of no violence against Israel?”

Mr. Ahmadinejad responded by asking for a three-minute break “for the interpreter.” After the break, he said that it was the United States and “the Zionist regime” that had nuclear weapons, while Iran was seeking to enrich uranium only for “fuel purposes.”

Translation: “After due consideration, my answer is: you have got to be kidding. What do you think I am–a naive American Christian pacifist?”