Iran's President to meet Pope

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The Independent Online
IRAN'S PRESIDENT, Mohammed Khatami, arrived in Rome yesterday on a controversial diplomatic mission aimed at ending his country's international isolation, boosting trade and winning foreign support for his reformist policies.

Mr Khatami is the first Iranian head of state to visit Europe since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

He was received with full honours by the Italian President, Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, at the Quirinal Palace and later met the Prime Minister, Massimo D'Alema, and the Speakers of both Houses of Parliament. He will have an audience with the Pope tomorrow.

The Iranian President's visit to Europe follows electoral successes by his reformist allies at home. In local elections last month, reformist forces swept the polls in the capital, Teheran, and in other cities.

Since Mr Khatami was elected on a platform of social and political reform in 1997, his moves to open up Iran to the West and increase press and individual freedoms have been savagely opposed by the hard- line clerics who still control sectors of Iranian life.

The Vatican sees his meeting with the Pope as an event of exceptional significance and as a confirmation of the Pope's desire for dialogue with Islam. Vatican sources say the Pope is expected to be characteristically frank about Iran's record on religious freedoms and human rights.

Italy is seeking for herself a bridging role between Iran and the West that will bring diplomatic as well as economic benefits, particularly in the energy sector. But the Italian Foreign Ministry has insisted Western concerns over human rights and arms proliferation will be put to Mr Khatami.

Iranian opposition groups say the President is just a front for an autocratic and bloody regime, and several thousand Iranian dissidents converged on Rome to protest. His arrival has also provoked criticism from Italian opposition groups and some far left parties.