After his coup in reviving relations between Washington and Havana, Pope Francis has in his sights an even bigger goal: ending the interfaith savagery that is ripping apart the Middle East and sending millions of people fleeing for their lives.
Francis’s chance to get the ball rolling will come on Tuesday, when, having previously spoken at length on the disintegration of Syria, he will play host to President Hassan Rouhani during the Iranian leader’s first trip to the West following the lifting of sanctions.
“This is a very significant meeting, and one the Pope finds very encouraging,” the Vatican’s chief spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, said of the trip in which Mr Rouhani will also meet the Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, before flying to Paris to meet President François Hollande on Wednesday.
The Iranian leader’s plan to visit both countries in December was postponed following the terrorist attacks in Paris.
Pope Francis’s intention to enter the cauldron of Middle-East and interfaith politics was underlined by a high-profile visit to Rome’s Synagogue and the expectation that the trip will be followed by an appearance at the capital’s Grand Mosque. It comes hot on the heels of the Holy See’s historic first treaty with the “State of Palestine” at the start of the year.
Ahead of Mr Rouhani’s visit, Tehran’s ambassador to Rome, Jahanbakhsh Mozaffari, said close ties between the Vatican and Iran of were the “utmost importance”. Iranian media sources are predicting that Mr Rouhani’s visit will see the Pope invited to Tehran.
Mr Lombardi told The Independent that Francis was ready and willing to intervene wherever possible to help address the violence in the Middle East and in particular, the proxy wars being fought across the region between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran.
“The Pope is acutely aware of the grave conflicts in the Middle East and he will use his moral authority and international standing to promote peace at every opportunity,” he said, adding that were an invitation from Mr Rouhani to materialise this week, then Francis would be likely to accept it. Francis is particularly anxious to save Christians who are being terrorised or slaughtered across the region. “The Christians are suffering every form of violence. The Pope wants this and the suffering for all minorities to stop,” Mr Lombardi said.
Raffaele Marchetti, a professor of international relations at Rome’s Luiss University, said Pope Francis recognised that bringing Tehran in from the cold was key to resolving conflicts in the Middle East. He said the Vatican’s concerns centred on violence against Christians, the central role of Jerusalem, and the nearness of the Middle East to Rome. “I think he will succeed in becoming an important mediator between Western powers and Tehran,” he said. “The Vatican is determined to help relations between Tehran and Sunni Islam, even if bringing change to Saudi Arabia will be more difficult.”
Mr Rouhani, a relative moderate elected in 2013 on a platform to reduce Iran’s isolation, championed the deal under which Iran curbed its nuclear programme in return for the lifting of Western sanctions this month. His visit to Italy and France comes as diplomats are trying to arrange the first peace talks in two years to end the Syrian civil war.