CJP Director Daryl Byler (right) during a visit to Iran in February with a Mennonite Central Committee delegation. Ten Iranian women will attend EMU's Summer Peacebuilding Institute in May, the first visit to the United States by female scholars from the world's largest Shi'a seminary. Third from left (in blue) is Ann Graber Hershberger, EMU nursing professor and MCC U.S. board chair. (Photo courtesy Daryl Byler)

Iranian women scholars to study at Summer Peacebuilding Institute

Ten Iranian women from the world’s largest Shi’a Islam seminary will attend Eastern Mennonite University’s Summer Peacebuilding Institute (SPI) for three weeks in May. Their arrival will mark the first visit to the United States by female scholars from the seminary, Jami’at al-Zahra in Qom, Iran.

The ten women—doctoral students at the seminary—will join 130 international students on the campus of Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) in Harrisonburg, Va., to learn concepts and practices of peacebuilding, conflict analysis and resolution and restorative justice.

“Our goal is to train Iranian women seminarians to become ambassadors of friendship and voices for unity and dialogue,” says Dr. Mohammad Shomali, the director of international affairs at Jami’at al-Zahra who will escort the group.

The students are being co-hosted by EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding as well as its Center for Interfaith Engagement. They will also visit Amish and Mennonite communities in Lancaster Co., Pa., and the El-Hibri Foundation in Washington, D.C.

Since 1994, SPI has attracted more than 2,700 students of diverse faiths from 120 countries for academic instruction and cultural exchange. More than 90 percent of former students work in peacebuilding-related disciplines, including 2011 Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee, of Liberia.

Ten Iranian students have attended SPI, and two have continued their studies to earn master’s degrees in conflict transformation.

However, hosting a large group of accomplished women scholars is “a rare opportunity,” says J. Daryl Byler, executive director of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at EMU. “This is a unique step in our long history of interfaith dialogue. We look forward to the theological and cultural insights they will bring.”

Shomali has previously led two groups of women in 2011 and 2012 to study Anabaptist and Christian theology at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

The academic exchanges build on more than 20 years of Mennonite-Shi’a interfaith dialogue fostered by the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), a partial sponsor of the upcoming trip. MCC first reached out to Iran after a devastating earthquake in 1990, offering relief supplies in partnership with the Iranian Red Crescent Society. The organization’s outreach has since focused on “understanding, friendship, and interfaith connections between the people of Iran, Canada, and the U.S.,” as well as “peacebuilding through shared knowledge,” according to a press release.

Major funding has been provided by the Center for Interfaith Engagement at EMU.