Pope Meets Iranian President Rouhani as Holy See Diplomacy Moves Up a Gear

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (photo: Wikipedia)


Catholic News Agency has a report on today's meeting between Pope Francis and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani here. The Vatican statement is here:

Today, in the Vatican Apostolic Palace, the Holy Father Pope Francis received in audience His Excellency Hassan Rouhani, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The meeting between the Pope and President Rouhani is the first of its kind since 1999 when Pope St. John Paul II received in audience at the Vatican the then Iranian president Mohammad Khatami. 

President Rouhani subsequently met with His Eminence Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, accompanied by His Excellency Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, secretary for Relations with States. During the cordial discussions, common spiritual values emerged and reference was made to the good state of relations between the Holy See and the Islamic Republic of Iran, the life of the Church in the country and the action of the Holy See to favour the promotion of the dignity of the  human person and religious freedom.

Attention then turned to the conclusion and application of the Nuclear Accord and the important role that Iran is called upon to fulfil, along with other countries in the Region, to promote suitable political solutions to the problems afflicting the Middle East, to counter the spread of terrorism and arms trafficking. In this respect, the Parties highlighted the importance of interreligious dialogue and the responsibility of religious communities in promoting reconciliation, tolerance and peace.

Pope Francis will receive in private audience Iranian President Hassan Rouhani tomorrow, the latest meeting in a flurry of Holy See diplomatic activity concerning the Middle East and China.

The much anticipated audience, which was to have taken place in November but was postponed after the terrorist attacks in Paris, comes amid increased tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The two nations cut diplomatic ties with each other earlier this month after the Arab nation executed a prominent Shiite cleric.

Pope Francis had a timely encounter with Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Italy, Rayed Krimly, last week when the diplomat came to the Vatican as part of a delegation to invite the Holy Father to visit Rome’s Grand Mosque. The Holy See has no diplomatic relations with the House of Saud, and Francis took the opportunity to push for reciprocity of religious freedom in a country which continues to forbid the construction of churches.

The Pope and Holy See diplomats will probably try to use the occasion of Rouhani’s visit to help defuse tensions between the two Muslim-majority countries. The Holy See is also adamant that Iran play a role in ending the conflict in Syria and the continued violence in Iraq by taking up the fight against ISIS.

Francis has also been following closely the Iranian nuclear deal which led this month to a lifting of sanctions on the country. In contrast to many on the political Right, he has taken a positive view of the nuclear deal, telling diplomats earlier this month he hoped the agreement would “contribute to creating a climate of détente in the region.” The Holy See has said it views the deal as an “important step that will promote dialogue and cooperation on other issues” in an area where there are “already too many conflicts.”

The history of Holy See-Iranian diplomatic relations has been largely positive: the two have had unbroken formal ties, even through the turbulent years of the Khomenei revolution in the 1970s, and Iran has allied with the Holy See against crucial abortion votes and other issues at the UN. The Persian nation's religious leaders are often guests at the Vatican (they have established a particularly good rapport with the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace), and Iran’s embassy to the Holy See is larger than those of many Western nations — so large, in fact, that some suspect the Iranians of using it as a covert listening post. 

The Iranian leader will be the first to meet a pope since President Mohammed Khatami met John Paul II in 1999. Khatami also attended John Paul’s funeral in 2005. According to the apostolic nuncio to Iran, Rouhani may invite the Pope to visit the country.

As the Pope tries to build bridges with Iran, he will also be keeping a close eye on China — a country he has said he would very much like to visit. According to Corriere della Sera, a government delegation from Beijing is expected to travel to the Vatican this week, following a similar trip by a Holy See delegation to meet Chinese officials last October.

To some, the omens are good. An agreement on the longstanding problem of bishops’ appointments “has never been so close”, according to Vatican sources. Chiaretto Yan, an author of a new book on Sino-Holy See relations, told reporters earlier this month that he thought a meeting between the Pope and President Xi Jinping “will happen” and there are “positive signs.”

But Cardinal Joseph Zen, the bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, remains skeptical, and critical of the Holy See which, he argues, has sought agreement with Beijing over bishops’ appointments without first resolving some important and sensitive issues. 

He also said the Vatican Secretary of State is too concerned with Ostpolitik (the post-conciliar policy of opening the Church up to the Communist countries of the East through dialogue) and has little regard for heroes who “defended the faith of their people with courage”, such as Cardinals Wyszynski, Mindszenty and Beran.

News of the Holy See's discreet diplomatic activity comes as Italian media reported the Pope had told pilgrims at his Angelus address yesterday that the “missionary Church must not do politics".

The Italian headlines were a little misleading: the Pope had actually said evangelizing the poor means, above all, “being close to them, having the joy of serving them, freeing them from oppression, and all this in the name of and with the Spirit of Christ.” He said that “isn’t about giving social assistance, much less about political activity” but has to do “with the strength of the Gospel of God, who converts hearts, heals the wounded, transforms human and social relationships according to the logic of love. The poor, in fact, are at the center of the Gospel.”

It’s likely elements of the Italian press wanted to make it seem the Pope was ordering Catholics to retreat from political life because then it might influence a crucial upcoming vote in Italy on allowing civil unions for same-sex couples.

Over a million people, principally led by the Neocatechumenal Way, are expected to attend "Family Day" — a march against the legislation in Rome to take place on Saturday.