On November 14, Pope Francis will meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the Vatican. It will be the first time a pope has met with a head of the Islamic Republic since Pope St. John Paul II received President Mohamed Khatami at the Vatican on March 11, 1999.
The encounter between the two leaders will take place while Rouhani is in Italy ahead of a visit to Paris and just weeks after Pope Francis’ General Audience of October 28, which commemorated the 50th anniversary of the promulgation of Nostra Aetate. That document from the Second Vatican Council concerns the Church and non-Christian religions, and it opened a new chapter in the history of relations between Muslims and Catholics.
Both this month’s meeting and last month’s audience are part of an on-going dialogue between the Holy See and Iran. Last February, Pope Francis met with the nation’s Vice-President for Women and Family Affairs, Shahindokht Molaverdi. A concrete result of their meeting was the invitation of a delegation of leading women from Iran to the World Meeting of Families, held in September in Philadelphia.
In the diplomatic history between Iran and the Vatican, Blessed Paul VI holds a prominent place. He visited Iran on November 26, 1970 en route to the Far East. During his brief stopover there, he met with the Sha, Mohammad Pahlavi. It was the last time a pope visited the country; while Pope Francis’ trip to the Middle East in May 2014 included stops in Jordan and the Holy Land, he did not visit Iran.
Although encounters between popes and Iranian premiers are somewhat rare, papal delegates have been known to travel to the Islamic Republic more frequently. French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the current president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, has been there several times. He served as the secretary for Relations with States between 1990 and 2003. Since June 25, 2007, he has headed the Vatican dicastery responsible for dialogue with Muslims.
The Vatican enjoys better relations with Iran than some other Middle Eastern nations, but it still faces uphill challenges. Despite the poor state of religious liberty there, Middle Eastern Catholics do enjoy some freedoms. Even still, it is illegal for Muslims to convert to Christianity. But back in February, Molaverdi said, “We have much more in common than we think, or that could possibly divide us.”
At his November 14 meeting with President Rouhani, Pope Francis will face three particular challenges.
The first challenge is anti-Semitism.
In an e-mail dated October 30, Kishore Jayabalan of the Istituto Acton told me that the Pope “should tell Rouhani what he recently told a meeting of Jewish leaders, that to be anti-Israel is to be anti-Semitic and therefore unacceptable.” However, Jayabalan says he doubts “it would have much effect.”
Jayabalan directs the Istituto Acton here in Rome—the group is connected to the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has worked for both the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace at the Vatican and the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations.
At one point in his career, Jayabalan took part in a meeting between Vatican and Iranian officials. What he saw in that meeting does not make him hopeful about the encounter to take place between the Pope and the Iranian Premier. He says, “The Iranians were not at all interested in any kind of serious dialogue. It’s all a show for them.”
That leads to the second major challenge facing Pope Francis at his upcoming meeting: religious freedom.
Princeton’s Professor Robert George is the current chairman of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. Back in August, he told the Washington Times, “Two years have passed since President Rouhani assumed office, and for two years he has failed on his promise to improve the climate for religious freedom, particularly for religious minority communities.” He added, “In fact, the situation for religious minority groups—including Baha’is, Christians, and Sufi Muslims—remains dire, as it does for dissenting Shi’a and Sunni Muslims.” In particular, George noted that “Christian church services continue to be raided and worshippers arrested, and dissenting Muslims continue to be imprisoned and tortured.”
Pope Francis needs to tell President Rouhani to stop making empty promises about the amelioration of religious liberty in his country. The show is over. He needs to start committing to concrete action.
Finally, the challenge of Iran’s nuclear arms will be a factor in Holy Father’s meeting with Rouhani.
On September 15, Vatican Radio published a report with the headline “Vatican welcomes Iran agreement, urges greater nuclear disarmament.” The Pope’s secretary for the Holy See’s Relations with States released an official statement to the 59th General Conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency, stating, “The Holy See values positively this agreement because it considers that the way to resolve disputes and difficulties should always be that of dialogue and negotiation.”
The Pope needs to tell Rouhani that that position stands only so long as Iran can evidence its own openness to dialogue and negotiation, chiefly by abandoning its state policy of anti-Semitism and its oppression of non-Muslims. If it cannot do that, the Pope should step away from his tacit approval of the nuclear deal.
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