A group of Iranian-Canadian academics and artists is vehemently protesting an invitation by the Mennonite Central Committee of Ontario to six Iranian Islamic scholars to take part in a conference at the University of Waterloo this month.
The Shia scholars, who are still awaiting visas, are from the Imam Khomeini Education and Research Institute. Its director is the controversial fundamentalist Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, spiritual adviser to Iran's hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
This year, six representatives from the institute will present papers on the theme of spirituality at a four-day "dialogue on faith," co-sponsored by the Conrad Grebel University College, an affiliate of the University of Waterloo. "We're not against dialogue but the Mennonites are naive if they think they can open one with these people," says Haideh Moghissi, a York University sociologist who with 17 others signed a protest letter sent to the university.
She says Mesbah-Yazdi and his followers are "at the forefront of oppression in Iran," responsible for silencing all intellectuals who disagree with the regime.
"It hurts to know that while people are losing their lives over there, some people are opening the door to `dialogue' over here. Why doesn't the institute open it back there?"
It is the third symposium between the Mennonite committee and the Mesbah-Yazdi's institute since a relationship was established in 1998. The committee has also sponsored two of its post-graduate students to complete their PhDs at the University of Toronto.
"It's precisely because of the institute's closeness to Ahmadinejad that it's particularly important to cultivate a relationship," says committee director Rick Cober-Bauman.
He has responded to the critics, he says, offering a separate meeting to hear their views: "By no means do we want to minimize their concerns. Mennonites understand persecution."
But they also believe it is their calling to build peace, he adds.
"Maybe we are naive, but maybe things come from people who appear misguided or naive."
From his seminary in Qom, the holy city north of Tehran, Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi espouses total isolation from the West and zero tolerance to any veering away from fundamentalist Shia interpretation of Islam.
Mesbah-Yazdi is a strong advocate of the death penalty, public flogging and the use of suicide bombers against "enemies of Islam." Although his institute has dispatched 15 students to universities in Canada, Britain, Austria and elsewhere, Mesbah-Yazdi himself seems to have mixed feelings. He has said that Iranians who question the regime after studying abroad do so because they'd been trained in "psychological warfare" by foreign universities.
"He is the most dangerous mullah in Iran," says Saeed Rahnema, director of York University School of Public Policy and Administration, who spearheaded the protest.
Rahnema thinks that by co-sponsoring the May 27-30 conference, Conrad Grebel University College is giving legitimacy to Mesbah-Yazdi's ideology.