Citing his own experience in negotiating for the freedom of two hikers held in Iran as suspected spies, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick suggested in a Monday night speech in New York that U.S. diplomats need to do more to develop "religious channels" to other nations.The cardinal provided some interesting details of his trip to Iran in September. My impression had been that he and other clergymen had dealt mainly with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whom McCarrick had met in New York a year earlier. McCarrick said that Ahmadinejad had indeed encouraged him to come to Iran, but that his primary business there was to encourage Iranian religious leaders to support the release of hikers Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal."Our job was to persuade the religious leaders," he said. This took place over five to six days, he said, and involved "citing the Qur'an" to the Iranian clergy. "I recommend its reading," he added.McCarrick said there was discussion of the importance of compassion in Islam. "They released them two days later," he said.The cardinal spoke to the Catholic community connected to the United Nations - gathered by the International Catholic Organizations Network - at Holy Family church, down the block from the U.N."There is a need and usefulness for a religious channel," he said, and added that the State Department needs to see its value.McCarrick said he went to Iran without telling the State Department, but that on the way, the White House called to say the president knew what he was doing and wished him good luck. (McCarrick cited what he said was Cardinal Francis Spellman's definition of a secret: "something you tell one person at a time.")McCarrick also spoke darkly of the difficulties facing Christians in the Middle East as a result of the Arab Spring revolt. He expressed particular concern about Syria because, he said, 500,000 Iraqi Christians have fled there and are vulnerable. If the Syrian government falls, he said, there could be a bloodbath. "Where are the Christians going to go?" he asked. "Who will take a half a million Christians?"
Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses.