Washington bishop joins effort to free imprisoned hikers in Iran

September 19, 2011

Update: On Sept. 21, the New York Times reported that the U.S. hikers had been released.

Bishop John Bryson Chane of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington returned on Sept. 19 from Iran, where he and a delegation of Christian and Muslim leaders had sought the release of American hikers Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal on humanitarian grounds.

Bauer and Fattal were arrested, along with Sarah Shourd, on July 31, 2009 by Iranian authorities and accused of spying. Shourd was released on bail in September 2010 for medical reasons and left the country. In August, Bauer and Fattal were sentenced to eight years in prison.

The delegation, which traveled to Iran at the invitation of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, included Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, former leader of the Archdiocese of Washington and Nihad Awad and Larry Shaw, national executive director and board chairman respectively of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

The group met with Ahmadinejad and other political leaders, and engaged in theological dialogue with leading clerics, stressing the commonalities of the Abrahamic tradition – compassion, mercy and forgiveness. The delegation also met with the families of Iranians imprisoned in the United States.

Ahmadinejad said Sept. 13 that the two men would be released within two days. Iran's chief of the judiciary Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani said Ahmadinejad did not have the authority to release the prisoners.

Despite these reports, "there's a reasonable expectation that [the hikers] will be released," said William Miller, senior advisor to the U.S.-Iran program run by Search for Common Ground, the Washington-based organization that helped facilitate the visit. "It's to everyone's benefit."

Miller, in an interview Sept. 19 at Dulles International Airport while awaiting the delegation's return, said that despite previous "disappointments and false starts … it appears that the decision has been made and we hope that will be the case."

The delegation's role, he added, was to help to strip away the political components from the case so that it could be decided on its merits.

While the issue of the hikers was central, Miller stressed it was not the sole purpose of the trip, which was intended to be a "confidence-building measure – improving relations between the two countries."

"In the case of normal relations you could deal with this in a straightforward way but, in the case of no normal relations you fill the gap as best you can," he said. "The primary purpose was to try and deepen the relationship between both countries by direct contact – of religious leadership in their case."

Speaking at a press conference following their Sept. 19 arrival at Dulles International Airport, McCarrick said the delegation had a good opportunity to talk about the situation and "to build bridges."

"Then in a very special way our hope was to encourage the rapid release of these young men," he said, stating that although there may be "a few glitches" along the way, "we believe that this is imminent."

Chane described the trip as the culmination of five years of very hard work, which involved numerous conversations with religious and political leaders in both countries. He stressed the need for reciprocity, noting that more than 60 Iranian citizens are jailed in the United States.

"We spoke to some of the relatives – husbands, mothers, fathers – and we learned that some of those cases can be resolved on the same ground and some of them can be reviewed," Awad said.

"It would be very appropriate if our government was able to respond in kind," Chane said. "It would open significant doors, and the time to do that is now."

Miller said members of the delegation met with the U.S. State Department and appropriate members of Congress and think tanks before they left and would do so again upon their return to talk about what occurred and what could be improved. They also met with the families of the hikers, and will be meeting with them again to follow up.

Up for discussion will be a suggestion Ahmadenijad made during his meeting with the delegation: that a bilateral interfaith committee of Iranian and American religious leaders and scholars be created to engage in dialogue and bridge building.

"The president right out of the box talked about a bilateral commission and what that would do," Chane said. "There's a real desire to close this gap, and I hope there will be a response on this side to deal with that. We've demonized each other and we have got to be in conversation – and this was a great conversation. We have touched the better angels in both countries."