Iranian President And Pope Hold Historic Meeting

VATICAN CITY—Pope John Paul II held a historic meeting March 11 with President Mohammad Khatami of the Islamic Republic of Iran as some 200 Iranian dissidents shouted protests on the fringes of the Vatican city-state.

Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls described the 25-minute meeting in the Pope's private study overlooking St. Peter's Square as “cordial” and said the talks were “marked by a spirit of dialogue between Muslims and Christians.”

Christian-Muslim relations are strained in many parts of the world, including Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation and the site of recent bloody clashes that have caused dozens of deaths.

The Iranian president, who is also an Islamic cleric, is the highest-ranking Islamic official to visit the Vatican and the first president of Iran to meet with Pope John Paul.

The visit took on added significance because Khatami is also at present the head of the 55-nation Islamic Conference, which brings together Islamic nations with populations totaling about 1 billion people — equal to the number of Catholics in the world.

“President Khatami, alluding to the interreligious encounters the Holy Father has convoked in the past at Assisi, expressed the hope that this ‘spirit of Assisi’ might remain for the future as the model of the common accord between religions and peoples,” Navarro-Valls said.

In invoking Assisi, Khatami referred to the periodic gatherings of leaders of the world's religions at the Umbrian hill-town, birthplace of St. Francis of Assisi, since the Pope presided over an interreligious celebration there for World Day of Prayer for Peace on Oct. 27, 1986.

Following their private meeting, both the Pope and the Iranian president displayed unusual warmth during a brief ceremony in which they exchanged gifts and posed for photographs.

“At the end of my visit to Italy and after this meeting with you, I return to my country full of hope for the future,” Navarro-Valls quoted Khatami as saying. He said the Pope replied with thanks “for this visit that I consider important and promising.”

Khatami expressed his hope “for the final victory of monotheism, of ethics, together with peace and reconciliation.” He asked the Pope to pray for him and said, “I pray that the most holy God will grant you success and health.”

‘At the end of my visit to Italy and after this meeting with you, I return to my country full of hope for the future…’

The enthusiasm of one member of Khatami's party, who was dressed like the president in the black turban and robes of a mullah, took the Pope and his aides by surprise. “May I do something?” the man asked the Pope at the doorway. When the Pope replied, “Certainly,” he leaned over and kissed John Paul on the cheek.

Khatami, 56, arrived in Italy on March 9 to start the first state visit by an Iranian leader to Western Europe since the overthrow of the shah in 1979. His papal audience followed meetings with President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, Prime Minister Massimo D'-Alema, Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini and Italian businessmen, as well as a visit to Florence.

Italian authorities imposed tight security, closing Khatami's motorcade routes to all other traffic, causing mammoth traffic jams in the center of the city. That did not, however, stop demonstrators from pelting his dark blue Maserati limousine with eggs on March 10.

Police and paramilitary Carabinieri forces checked some 1,000 cars parked on his route to the Vatican today and took into custody four men carrying paint-filled eggs and banners.

A large force of police and Carabinieri blocked all access to Vatican territory for two hours, leaving confused tourists milling about on surrounding streets. They kept a tight cordon around some 200 noisy but peaceful Iranian dissident demonstrators, who shook their fists, shouted, “Justice, justice” and waved placards saying, “Stop the massacre” and “Khatami murderer.”

Italian officials have said they hoped the visit and increasing trade relations with Iran will help to encourage Khatami, whom they view as a moderate, to modernize Iranian society and loosen the grip of its fundamentalist clergy. Khatami, for example, has called for a “dialogue between civilizations and countries and different people and cultures” — in sharp contrast to his revolutionary predecessors.

In the exchange of gifts between the Pope and the president, which is part of the protocol of a state visit, John Paul gave Khatami a bas-relief in bronze of the Apostles Peter and Paul. “It is a very precious gift,” the Iranian leader said.

Khatami gave John Paul a small framed carpet showing St. Mark's Basilica in Venice, a collection of the work of the Farsi poet Hafiz and six videocassettes of an Iranian television series about the adventures, as told in the Koran, of a group of early Christians who fled persecution and hid in caves in the mountains surrounding Tehran.

“I am sure you will find them very interesting,” Khatami told the Pope.

After Iran nationalized many Church-run social institutions in 1980, about 75 Catholic missionaries were either forced to leave the country or departed on their own. In recent years, however, Iranian authorities have shown more cooperation regarding entry visas for Church personnel.

Although freedom of worship is guaranteed in Iran, Church sources said Catholic activities are monitored carefully by authorities. The Church has no publishing rights, and Iranian Christians — along with other religious minorities — suffer various forms of discrimination in the legal system and in public life, according to human rights groups.

(CNS contributed to this report)