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QOM, IRAN - People back home simply cannot understand why Wally and
Evelyn Shellenberger have chosen to spend nearly three years in the Iranian
holy city of Qom.
They are the only American Christians living in the 1,000-year old desert
city, which is perched on the edge of a great salt lake 90 miles south of
Tehran. It is a world apart from the green hills of their home in Indiana.
The couple are Mennonite Christians who are in Qom on an exchange program
with an Islamic institute aimed at building understanding and friendship
between the two faiths.
Between the turquoise-and gold-domed mosques and walled seminaries, they
share the dusty streets of this austere city - Iran's foremost Shiite Muslim
center of clerical learning and a prime destination for pilgrims - with
bearded clerics and women swathed in black chadors. There are no bars,
fast-food outlets, or video stores in Qom. And Westerners are conspicuous by
their absence in the city that was the ideological epicenter of the 1979
Islamic Revolution, a cornerstone of which was anti-Americanism.
"Ordinary people back home think it's a dangerous place to be, but
actually it's probably as safe a place as any in the world," says Dr.
Shellenberger, a soft-spoken retired psychiatrist who wears a trim white
beard without a mustache. "We're treated very well as guests."
It was human tragedy on a massive scale that led to the first contacts
between Iran and the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), an organization of
the Mennonite Church of the US and Canada, that is involved in relief and
reconciliation work. The MCC sent humanitarian assistance to the Iranian Red
Crescent in 1990, after an earthquake measuring a magnitude of 7.7 struck
northwest Iran, killing 35,000 people. The relationship has continued, with
aid sent to help in later earthquakes and to assist Iraqi refugees in Iran.
The MCC's student exchanges with Iran, aimed at building people-to-people
contacts and encouraging dialogue between American and Iranian citizens,
began in 1998 and was modeled after a similar program that existed in
Eastern European countries during the cold war.
Seldom has there been a time when dialogue between ordinary Americans and
Iranians been more vital. The Shellenbergers' stay in Iran has encompassed
not only the Sept. 11 attacks on America, but the US-led wars against two of
Iran's immediate Muslim neighbors, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Despite perceptions to the contrary in the West, Iranians are far less
anti-American than many of their counterparts in Arab countries whose
governments are allied to the US, say some familiar with the Middle East.
Surveys show more than 70 percent of Iranians favor restoring diplomatic
ties with Washington, which were severed more than two decades ago.
But this is no surprise for the Shellenbergers. "The [Iranian] people are
wonderful. They are hospitable, friendly, and helpful. They are sincere in
their faith and I feel like they are brothers of mine," says Wally
The simple life favored by Mennonites, has made Qom less of a culture
shock for exchange students such as the Shellenbergers. That alcohol is
forbidden in Iran, for instance, is no problem for Mennonites, who do not
Not that the Shellenbergers lead Spartan lives in Qom. Like other MCC
volunteers working abroad, they intended to live like people in their host
country, but the Iranian institute where they study was responsible for
their accommodation and provided it in style. Home has been a spacious
apartment with ornate ceilings.
The couple spent most of their first year and a half learning Farsi. This
was followed by reading through the Koran with a professor at the Imam
Khomeini Institute of Education and Research, where they attend some four
sessions a week. Their learning is reinforced by much reading on their own.
Wally Shellenberger is currently devouring the works of Hafiz, a
14th-century Sufi mystic and Iran's great medieval lyric poet.
Evelyn Shellenberger does not mind wearing the mandatory head scarf and
long coat but has never become comfortable in the chador, an
all-encompassing garment worn by devout or conservative Iranian women, that
she is required to wear on visits to the institute. The word chador
literally means tent. "It's more of a cumbersome thing to wear and it
doesn't have any buttons," her husband explains.
Qom was not their first experience of a culture strikingly different from
that of the Midwest. In the late 1960s, the Shellenbergers spent four years
as medical volunteers in a hospital in Biafra, the short-lived secessionist
state in Nigeria where at least 1 million people died of famine during civil
warfare. The couple believe Christians could learn from the Islam they have
come to know in Iran. There is more family stability in the Islamic Republic
and less personal selfishness, he says.
Ordinary Iranians are surprised when they discover the Shellenbergers
have chosen to learn about Islam in Qom in order to foster a better
understanding of the faith back home. Some Iranians ask if they intend to
convert to Islam. "No," Mr. Shellenberger tells them politely, adding: "In
understanding Islam better, it helps me be a better Christian."