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Pope Francis meets Iranian president Rouhani to promote cooperation, nuke deal, religious freedom

By Doug G. Ware   |   Jan. 26, 2016 at 9:24 PM
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VATICAN CITY, Jan. 26 (UPI) -- For the first time in nearly 20 years, the pope and the president of Iran met face-to-face on Tuesday to discuss significant matters that affect both leaders in today's evolving geopolitical and religious landscape.

Pope Francis welcomed Iranian President Hasan Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, at the Vatican and discussed various items, including the recent nuclear deal between Tehran and Western powers and the prospect of peace in the Middle East.

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The meeting, the first between the pontiff and Iran's president since 1999, lasted for 39 minutes.

"I ask you to pray for me. It's been a pleasure and I wish you well in your work," Rouhani said at the end of the gathering. The Iranian leader spoke to Pope Francis through an interpreter.

The pope spoke to Rouhani in Italian, also though an interpreter.

"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," the Vatican said in a news release Tuesday.

The pontiff also addressed the issue of Christianity in largely Islamic Iran and expressed hope that both sides will be accepting of the religions of all people.

"The Parties highlighted the importance of interreligious dialogue and the responsibility of religious communities in promoting reconciliation, tolerance and peace," the Vatican said.

It is estimated that as many as 300,000 Christians reside in Iran -- 20,000 of whom are Catholic.

Francis, who has applauded the nuclear deal struck last summer, also said he hopes Iran will fulfill its role of promoting peaceful political solutions and resist the spread of terrorism and arms trafficking.

Zarif played an instrumental role as Iran's chief negotiator during the nuclear talks last year with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and officials from five U.S. allies, called the 5+1.

The visit to the Vatican was part of a four-day tour of Italy and France for Iran's president, who has expressed a desire to warm relations with the West since he was elected in 2013.

"The achievements of the visit to Italy go beyond bilateral significance and can contribute to world peace, security and stability which are the two countries' main ideals to be met in the region and over the world for the benefit of all," Rouhani said after meeting with Italian government officials Tuesday.

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