By Elise Harris
On Tuesday Pope Francis met with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani for the first time, an encounter that focused heavily on human rights, religious freedom, and an end to the spread of terrorism.
Originally scheduled to take place in November, Rouhani’s visit was canceled at the last minute due to the Nov. 13, 2015, attacks in Paris. It also follows the lifting of international sanctions against the country after a long-anticipated nuclear agreement was reached in July.
The Jan. 26 meeting between Francis the Iranian president took place in the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace, and lasted 40 minutes.
Rouhani was accompanied by a delegation of 12 persons, all of whom were men save an Iranian woman who served as one of two interpreters assisting during the encounter. Rouhani spoke in Farsi, while Pope Francis spoke in Italian.
A Vatican communique described the meeting between Francis and Rouhani as cordial, and centered largely on relations between the Holy See and Iran, the life of the Church in the country, and the actions of the Holy See in promoting the dignity of the human person and religious freedom.
Though no mention was explicitly made of Iran’s role in the Syrian and Iraq conflicts, the topic was likely a key point of discussion, as well as the condition of Christians across the Middle East.
However, the Vatican communique did note that Iran’s important role in the region in promoting “suitable political solutions to the problems afflicting the Middle East, to counter the spread of terrorism and arms trafficking” was spoken about, as well that of other countries.
“In this respect, the parties highlighted the importance of interreligious dialogue and the responsibility of religious communities in promoting reconciliation, tolerance and peace,” the communique said.
Discussion also touched on the conclusion and application of the recently-agreed to Nuclear Accord. After months of negotiation representatives of the United States, Iran, and other nations met in Vienna in July, reaching a long-awaited deal aimed at limiting Iran’s nuclear activity in exchange for the lifting of international economic sanctions.
Nuclear-related sanctions on Iran were lifted on the condition that country abides by the framework set, however, sanctions related to terrorism, human rights abuses and ballistic missiles remain.
Rouhani’s meeting with Pope Francis is part of a larger European tour that will also take him to Paris, and marks the first time an Iranian president or head of government has visited Europe since 1999.
As is customary during papal encounters with heads of state, both Francis and Rouhani exchanged gifts once their conversation was over.
Pope Francis gifted the Iranian president a large medal of St. Martin cutting off part of his cloak to give to a poor man, telling him, “it’s a sign of brotherhood.”
The Pope also gave Rouhani copies of his 2015 encyclical on the care for our common home, Laudato si’. Since it hasn’t yet been translated into Farsi, Francis gave the president copies in both Arabic and English.
For his part the Iranian president gave Francis a large tapestry, which he explained “was made by hand in the holy city of Qom,” which sits just southwest of the Iranian capital, Tehran. He also gave the Pope a large book with colorful illustrations.
As the two were headed to the door, Francis thanked Rouhani for the visit, and said that “I hope for peace.” In turn, the Iranian president asked the Pope for prayers.
After speaking with the Pope, Rouhani subsequently met with the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, as well as the Secretary of Relations with the States, Archbishop Paul Gallagher.