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Thursday, March 11, 1999 Published at 19:06 GMT


World: Europe

Pope meets Iranian leader



Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and Pope John Paul II have held a historic meeting at the Vatican.

Mr Khatami, a moderate Shi'a Muslim cleric, is Iran's most senior religious leader to visit the Pontiff.

He is also the first president of the Islamic Conference - a pan-Muslim organisation uniting 55 Islamic countries - to visit the Vatican.


Fergus Nicol reports: "Closer ties between the two religions"
The two men met for 25 minutes in the Pope's private library. Mr Khatami asked John Paul to pray for him.

The Pontiff said it had been "an important, promising day".

Mr Khatami said: "The hope is for the final victory of monotheism, morality, peace and reconciliation."

Christianity and Islam together account for more than two billion believers - a third of the world's population


[ image:  ]
The two men appeared relaxed as they exchanged gifts afterwards.

The Pope gave the Iranian leader a painting of the saints Peter and Paul, while Mr Khatami presented John Paul with a Persian rug depicting St Mark's Basilica in Venice.

Despite tight security at St Peter's Square, about 50 anti-Khatami protesters managed to break in and were surrounded by police.

Reports said about 10 demonstrators hemmed in the cars of Iranian journalists outside the Vatican.


[ image: Iranian opponents of the Islamic Revolution took to the streets]
Iranian opponents of the Islamic Revolution took to the streets
The demonstration was the latest in a series of protests marking Mr Khatami's visit to Italy - the first by an Iranian leader to western Europe since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Several people were detained in Rome after eggs filled with paint were hurled at a car carrying the Iranian leader.

Following the papal audience, Mr Khatami met Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who expressed concern about the treatment of Iran's 13,000-strong Catholic community.

Rushdie visit

But a visit to Turin, in northern Italy by British Indian-born author Salman Rushdie, caused consternation in Italy and Iran.

Mr Rushdie, who received an honorary degree from Turin university on Wednesday, has recently emerged out of hiding after Iran lifted a 10-year death threat against him. The threat followed publication of his book Satanic Verses which offended Muslims.

Mr Khatami said he was "deeply disappointed" that Mr Rushdie's visit to Italy had coincided with his own, but repeated that the Iranian Government would do nothing to implement Tehran's death sentence on the author.

Iranian newspapers lambasted Italy for hosting Mr Rushdie during the presidential state visit.

The English-language daily Iran News said: "The Italian Foreign Ministry must be held accountable for not informing its Iranian counterpart of its intention to grant a visa to the apostate Rushdie concurrent with the visit of President Khatami."

Religious ties

On the eve of his audience with the Pope, Mr Khatami had emphasised common ground among the world's religions, declaring that there were no "quintessential differences" among faiths.


[ image: President Khatami has already met Italian Government figures]
President Khatami has already met Italian Government figures
The Vatican's Tehran envoy, Archbishop Romeo Panciroli, had said the meeting between the leader of the Roman Catholic Church and the head of the Islamic Conference was of "primary importance for dialogue between Islam and Christianity".

A recent official Vatican document said Islam and Christianity were on a collision course in a fight for converts in Africa.

Both the Pope and Mr Khatami have publicly expressed a desire for better mutual understanding among their followers.

In the past, the Vatican has urged Iran, with its huge influence in the Muslim world, to disown international terrorism, improve its human rights record and open up to the West.

Earlier on his three-day visit to Italy, Mr Khatami called on the United States and Europe to regard Islam as an equal partner if they wanted to establish world peace.

He said Islam and the West had to get to know one another better, and then move on to improve their political, cultural and economic relations.

The Iranian leader is planning to travel to France in April. Since his election two years ago, Mr Khatami has visited the West just once - on a trip to the United Nations in September.



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