Interfaith delegation returns from Iran without hikers

September 19, 2011

An interfaith delegation of religious leaders from Washington didn’t come home from Iran on Monday with the news it had hoped for, but members said they remain optimistic about what they call the “imminent” release of two U.S. hikers.

The delegation hoped to return with hikers Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal, who have been jailed on spying charges since July 2009. But members of the group said conversations with Iranian authorities led them to believe that the release of the men, who maintain that they accidentally crossed the Iraq-Iran border, could come within days.

“This really was a great conversation,” said the Right Rev. John Bryson Chane, Episcopal bishop and interim dean of Washington National Cathedral. He added that the Iranians were “very accommodating . . . and we always were treated very well there.”

The group intended to meet with the hikers, but Iranian judicial officials denied their request. In a phone interview soon after the delegation’s arrival at Dulles International Airport, Chane said the group believed they would have been allowed to talk with the pair at another time but chose to return to Washington.

A third hiker, Sarah Shourd, who is engaged to Bauer, was also jailed by Iran, but was released last September.

The delegation met with officials including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and with the family members of Iranians detained in the United States. Iranian authorities expressed their hope to the delegation that the freeing of the detainees might be reciprocal.

Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), said the delegation plans to present the U.S. State Department with a list of 50 to 60 cases it wants the United States to examine. CAIR will also look into several cases of alleged mistreatment, Awad said.

“We heard heartbreaking stories [of Iranian detainees], truly,” Awad said. “The suffering is on both sides. Unless we address these legitimate issues we cannot move forward.”

Awad said the group also continues to press the case of former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who mysteriously disappeared in Iran four years ago.

Although Bauer and Fattal have not been released, members of the delegation said the two countries may have found a way to communicate in a political environment that has become increasingly strained over Iran’s nuclear program and Ahmadinejad’s comments about the Holocaust and Israel, among other issues. Chane said the trip was about “compassionate concerns for individuals.”

Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, archbishop emeritus of the Archdiocese of Washington and a member of the delegation, said there have been discussions about a more formal program of U.S. and Iranian religious delegations that could meet regularly.

Jeremy Borden covers Prince William County, Va., for The Washington Post.
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