WASHINGTON – As Iranian flags flapped vigilantly to passionate chants of 'Shame on You!' across from the famed National Cathedral, an Episcopal clergyman dressed in black with a white collar stood out among the crowd of Iranian protestors.
More than a hundred people, mostly Iranian Americans, gathered on the sidewalk across from the Washington National Cathedral to demonstrate against the speech of Iran’s former president at the Cathedral on Thursday. The Rev. Dr. Keith Roderick was among the protesters condemning Mohammed Khatami and his regime for terror against the Iranian people. Like many Iranians at the demonstration, he said he was puzzled by the Cathedral’s decision to invite a man linked to brutal murders, oppression, and severe human rights violations against the people of Iran.
"This is a church that is revered in our Anglican tradition and for them to offer a platform for Mr. Khatami is really an embarrassment," said Roderick, the Christian Solidarity International representative to Washington, as he held the sign “Shame on You, National Cathedral!” "So I feel it is more important as a clergy to stand over here with these people than over there with him."
Khatami is the highest-ranking Iranian official to be granted a visa to the United States since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. His visit sparked controversy and strong emotions across a wide-range of people from U.S. Senators to torture victims of Khatami’s regime.
Felice Gaer, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), had called the ex-president’s speech topic on a dialogue of civilizations "troubling irony," given Iran’s treatment of religious minorities. Meanwhile, Sen. Brownback (R-Kan.) demanded Khatami explain his government’s systematic persecution and oppression of its citizens.
"He should explain why Iran’s human rights records worsened on his watch," said Brownback at a press conference earlier on Thursday. "He should explain Iran’s persecution of religious minorities. He should explain why his government repressed people who express critical view of the Iranian regime. He should explain his government’s repression of peaceful protest."
Iranian protesters at Thursday’s protest strongly condemned Khatami and his regime, repeatedly calling attention to violence against Iranian citizens and noting deaths of family and friends who had spoken against the government.
Ahmad Mazahery, 57, stood at the frontline of the protest across from the Cathedral and shouted "Shame on you!" every time someone was allowed past security to hear Khatami speak. Mazahery was a university student when he lived in his homeland of Iran. He said his cousin was murdered for criticizing the regime.
Similarly, "Michael," 70, said his friends were killed by the government he compares to Hitler’s.
"I have so much to tell you," said Michael, a retired Iranian who now lives in Virginia. "Right now I’m just thinking how could this happen.
"I’ve been living in the United States for 40 years. I never heard of a terrorist coming to Washington like this. This is very shocking. Unbelievable."
He recalled the hostage crisis of 1979 when Ayatollah Khomeini and Iranian militants attacked the American embassy in Tehran and held some 70 Americans captive for 444 days inside the embassy.
"They are terrible. We are ashamed of that," said Michael. "This regime is bad. They have used religion to come to power and they have succeeded."
He continued, "The animals have more rights in the United States than Iranian people have over there. They don’t have human rights. They have nothing."
Faith McDonnell, director of religious liberty programs at The Institute on Religion & Democracy, also participated in the demonstration.
As the demonstration neared the end and the line to enter the Cathedral dwindled, the only clergyman in the protest – red and sweating from shouting – stood across from one of the largest and historic church in his denomination and concluded:
"As an Episcopalian I am very embarrassed and I apologize to everyone here who have lost loved ones in struggling for freedom and democracy in their homeland," said Roderick. "And that is why it is more comfortable for me to be over here; I think I am the only collar over here, there are a lot over there."