The leader of the Roman Catholic church, Pope Francis met with the Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani in a 40 minute sitting in Vatican on Tuesday.
The meeting between the Pope and President Rouhani is the first of its kind since 1999 when Pope St. John Paul II received in audience at the Vatican the then Iranian president Mohammad Khatami.
A statement released afterwards by the Holy See’s Press Office said Pope Francis and President Rouhani discussed bilateral relations, problems afflicting the Middle East area including the recently-signed Iran nuclear agreement and other international issues.
“The parties highlighted the importance of inter-religious dialogue and the responsibility of religious communities in promoting reconciliation, tolerance and peace,” the Vatican said.
Though the meeting was acknowledged as a positive change geopolitical landscape Rome’s Jewish community sharply criticized the visit, particularly as the timing came just ahead of the January 27 International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
In a statement, the Jewish community leadership underscored Rouhani’s positions of a clear “Holocaust denial and revisionist nature.”
It cited the “constant calls for the destruction of Israel” and manifestations such as Tehran’s “contest for anti-Semitic and Holocaust revisionist cartoons.”
These, it said, as well as his government’s “lack of respect for civil rights, constant increase of the death penalty, restrictions on freedom of the press” made Rouhani’s official visit to Rome “unwelcome.”
The Vatican statement also said “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.”
Following their talks, President Rouhani gave the Pope the gift of a hand-made rug from the Iranian holy city of Qhom and a book with miniatures. The Pope’s gift to the Iranian leader was a medal depicting St. Martin cutting his cloak in two to give one half to a poor man to keep him warm and he called the saint’s act “a sign of unsolicited brotherhood.” He also gave President Rouhani a copy of his latest encyclical Laudato Si.