Iranian President to Meet with Pope Francis

(photo: Register Files)

VATICAN CITY -- According to La Stampa's Vatican Insider, Pope Francis will receive Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the Vatican next month. The meeting between the two leaders is scheduled for November 14 when the Premier of the Islamic Republic will be in Italy for a two-day visit ahead of a stopover in Paris. During his November 14-15 tour here, President Rouhani will also meet with Italy's President Sergio Mattarella and Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

Next month's meeting will take place in the context of a history between the Holy See and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Diplomatic relations between the two countries survived the Islamic Revolution of 1970; and, although conversion to Christianity is illegal there, eastern Catholics enjoy some religious liberties. Currently, the Holy See has better relations with Iran than some other Middle Eastern countries.

The meeting between Pope Francis and President Rouhani will be the first of its kind since March 11, 1999 when Pope St. John Paul II received in audience President Mohamed Khatami. Later, the premier attended the Pope's requiem on April 8, 2005, which was also attended by Israeli President Moshe Katsav.

Although Iranian leaders have visited the Vatican, the blessed Pope Paul VI was the only pope to have visited Iran. Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi welcomed him there on November 26, 1970 during a brief stopover en route to the Far East. Since his election to the Chair of St. Peter, Pope Francis has made only one visit to the Middle East. Between May 24 and 26, 2014, he traveled to Jordan and the Holy Land.

However, visits to Iran have been more common for papal representatives. The President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, has traveled to the Islamic Republic several times. Between 1990 and 2003 he served as the Secretary for Relations with States and since June 25, 2007 he has headed the Vatican dicastery responsible for dialogue with Muslims.

On Wednesday, October 28, the cardinal participated in Pope Francis' General Audience with representatives of the world's religions. That event commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the promulgation of the Second Vatican Council's Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, entitled in Latin Nostra Aetate.

The November 14 visit will not be the first time Pope Francis has met with representatives of the Iranian government. Although that nation did not send an official delegation to the papal inauguration in March 2013, Pope Francis did receive in audience the Iranian Vice-President for Women and Family Affairs, Shahindokht Molaverdi, last February.  At a press conference in Rome following the meeting, Molaverdi said "Certainly this pope has an ability to bring people together, which can also influence governments."

According to the President of the Pontifical Council for the Family, Italian Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, that encounter resulted in the invitation of Molaverdi and a delegation of leading women from Iran to participate in last September's World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. Pope Francis celebrated the closing liturgy for that event during his nine day visit to Cuba and the United States.

Although the invitation did not materialize, Molaverdi has said that "We have much more in common than we think, or that could possibly divide us." The forthcoming meeting between Pope Francis and President Rouhani could affirm that belief, but many are hoping the two leaders will discuss religious liberty for Christians and others in Iran, especially Jews.

In August, Princeton Professor Robert George, the current chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said that “Two years have passed since President Rouhani assumed office, and for two years he has failed on his promise to improve the climate for religious freedom, particularly for religious minority communities." He added that “In fact, the situation for religious minority groups — including Baha’is, Christians, and Sufi Muslims — remains dire, as it does for dissenting Shi'a and Sunni Muslims." In particular, he noted that “Christian church services continue to be raided and worshippers arrested, and dissenting Muslims continue to be imprisoned and tortured."

Kishore Jayabalan is the Director of the Istituto Acton in Rome. He once took part in a meeting of Vatican and Iranian officials at the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and he notes that "the Iranians were not at all interested in any kind of serious dialogue. It’s all a show for them." While "it’s always good for the pope to meet world leaders, even if or especially if they are of the oppressive sort," Jayabalan hopes the Pope will "tell Rouhani what he recently told a meeting of Jewish leaders, that to be anti-Israel is to be anti-Semitic and therefore unacceptable, but I doubt it would have much effect." 

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