POPE FRANCIS, IRAN PRESIDENT ROUHANI MEET IN VATICAN
As I neared St. Peter’s Square this morning at the start of various appointments in the Vatican, I saw first hand the massive security that was in place for the late morning meeting between Pope Francis and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani. Adding to the president’s own motorcade of several dozen vehicle and limousines were the dozens of police motorcycles, cars, and vans and several Italian army jeeps with machine-gun toting officers, dressed in camouflage, ringing Vatican City.
Tourists and visitors were kept away from the left hand colonnade, although pilgrims were still allowed to enter the special area of the right hand colonnade to go through security in order to enter St. Peter’s Holy Door.
I well remember the last visit of an Iranian President – 1999 – when Mohammad Khatami came on an official visit to Rome and the Vatican. Traffic problems in the city then, 17 years ago, were massive (and that is an understatement) as many main streets were closed for hours, and some were even closed for the duration of the president’s stay at a Rome hotel. St. Peter’s Square was completely closed to tourists and visitors, and I remember helicopters circling overhead for the duration of the Vatican visit.
For days, news reports have highlighted the importance of Rouhani’s four-day trip to Europe – to Italy, the Vatican and France – especially because Europe was Iran’s largest trading partner before the sanctions, and a range of business and trade deals is expected. On his Italian agenda for his first day, Monday, Rouhani first met with Italian President Sergio Matterella, later meeting with Italian Prime Minister Matteo. Rouhani will be received in France by President Francois Hollande.
The Vatican released the following communique after the 40-minute private visit (with translators) between the Pope and President Rouhani (photos: news.va):
“Today, in the Vatican Apostolic Palace, the Holy Father Francis received in audience His Excellency Hassan Rouhani, President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, who 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.”
The newsworthy part of that communique undoubtedly concerns “…the important role that Iran is called upon to fulfill, 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.”
Iran, in essence, was being asked to take a leadership role in the region in the quest for peace and the fight against terrorism.
One report said that Pope Francis brought up the issue of human rights in Iran. That report noted that Amnesty International lists Iran right after China for abuses.
Ten days ago, January 16, Iran freed four U.S. prisoners as part of a prisoner swap, including Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian and Christian pastor Saeed Abedini. Abedini, in his first media appearance since then, spoke on a FoxNews program last night about his imprisonment in Iran. He was first detained in the summer of 2012. Abedini, a Muslim who converted to Christianity, has dual Iranian-American citizenship.
After their private talk, Pope Francis and President Rouhani exchanged gifts. AP reported that, “The pope’s gift had a spiritual spin. Francis bestowed a medal depicting St. Martin giving his cloak to a shivering man, saying the gesture represents a sign of brotherhood. President Hassan Rouhani brought the pope a red-toned carpet, about 80 cms (32 inches) by 1.2 meters (4 feet) and explained that the rug was hand-made in the Holy City of Qhom. Francis seemed curious as Hassan leafed through a book illustrating Iranian artworks, another gift.”
”I ask you to pray for me,” Rouhani is said to have told Francis: Francis thanked Rouhani for the visit and added: “I hope for peace.”