Pope discusses morality with Iranian leader

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The Independent Online
MOHAMMAD KHATAMI, the Iranian President, capped a ground-breaking visit to Europe yesterday with a private audience with the Pope.

The two leaders, clad in opposing black and cream robes, met for half an hour in the pontiff's private studio. A Vatican statement described the talks as an "important and promising" contribution to dialogue between Christianity and Islam.

President Khatami, a politically moderate Shia Muslim, told the Pope he hoped for the victory of monotheism, ethics and morality. He later met the Vatican Secretary of State, Angelo Sodano, who raised the issue of human rights in Iran. The Vatican said the two men also discussed the situation of Christians and Muslims in the Middle East as a whole. Mr Khatami is also leader of the 55-nation Organisation of the Islamic Conference.

During yesterday's unprecedented meeting about a hundred Iranian dissidents staged a noisy protest in a street near St Peter's, chanting "Khatami, terrorist". Despite security precautions, protesters managed to hurl an egg filled with red paint at the car in which President Khatami was travelling.

At the end of his visit to the Vatican, Mr Khatami presented his host with a silk wall-hanging, a book of Islamic verse and six videos of a popular Iranian television series which described the tribulations of Christians persecuted by the Romans in what is now Iran.

The Pope, who, aides say, hardly ever watches television, gave Mr Khatami a bronze relief depicting the apostles Peter and Paul.

Mr Khatami used his visit to appeal to Western nations to treat Iran as an international equal and to dispel its image as an intolerant country sympathetic to anti-Western terrorists.

He is also seeking support for Iran's lagging economy, and signed accords with Italy covering co-operation, foreign investment and the fight against the drugs trade. The President held talks with business leaders, including the head of Italy's energy giant, ENI, which recently signed a big oil deal with Tehran.

His broader goals struck an obvious chord with the Pope, who wants to promote greater collaboration between the great monotheistic faiths.

Italy's Foreign Minister, Lamberto Dini, who is seeking a strategic bridging role for Italy, said that the visit had been "an exceptionally important step in relations not only between Iran and Italy but Iran and Europe".