VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis met with the Iranian president Tuesday, joining in a cordial discussion which touched on the recent nuclear accord and Iran’s role in the region.
President Hassan Rouhani met first with Francis, privately for 40 minutes, and later with other officials.
The Vatican in a statement said the conversation delved into the nuclear accord recently taking effect and “the important role that Iran was called to play” to combat terrorism along with other countries in the region.
Iran was also urged to help fight arms trafficking, the Vatican said.
The Vatican described the talks as “cordial” and said “common spiritual values were highlighted,” as well as good Iranian-Vatican relations.
After the meeting, Iran’s president asked Pope Francis to pray for him. The Vatican meeting was a key part of an Iranian effort to take a more prominent place on the world stage after a nuclear deal with Western powers.
Rouhani’s visit to the Holy See saw the first meeting between a pope and an Iranian president since 1999. Iran, which agreed to limit its nuclear activities in exchange for an end to economic sanctions, is eager to carve out a bigger role in mediating Middle East conflicts. Francis’ papacy has emphasized mediation and conflict resolution, including his role in helping Cuba and the United States to normalize their relations after.
The Iranian leader is on a four-day European swing to boost Iran’s image abroad as well as to rehabilitate economic ties with a continent that had been a big trade partner before sanctions.
“I ask you to pray for me,” Rouhani told Francis after their 40-minute meeting. He called the visit by the leader of a Muslim country to the head of the Roman Catholic church “a real pleasure.”
Francis thanked Rouhani for the visit and added: “I hope for peace.” He gave the Iranian a medal depicting St. Martin helping a poor man, an act Francis called “a sign of unsolicited brotherhood.”
Rouhani brought a gift of a hand-made rug. He told the pope the red-toned carpet was made in the Iranian holy city of Qhom.
Rouhani arrived for the late-morning, closed-door meeting in a motorcade of some two dozen limousines. Security, already tight around the Vatican following the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris, was even more rigid than usual. Police kept tourists and Romans from walking too close to the colonnade ringing the square before and during the visit.
Tehran is keen on re-establishing energy and other economic ties with Europe, long a dependable trading partner. Iran also wants to end decades of diplomatic distance with the West in the wake of the landmark deal with six nations, including the United States, to curb Tehran’s nuclear activities and end economic sanctions.
Before going to the Vatican, Rouhani told a forum of business leaders in Rome that “Iran is the safest and most stable country of the entire region.”
Italy also sees Iran as a potential peacemaker in Syria’s civil war, as the Italian government fears the warfare will further destabilize Libya, just across the Mediterranean from southern Italy, fuel terrorism and jeopardize energy security.
“Italy has always backed the role of Iran as a regional player in resolving tensions in the area, starting with the Syrian crisis,” Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni said after meeting his Iranian counterpart, according to his office.
Rouhani has described the political talks leading to the nuclear deal as a potential blueprint for pursuing peace in the Middle East.
Rouhani’s visit to Italy and France is part of efforts by Iran to reach out to its old partners following the implementation of the nuclear deal, and Rouhani is eager for foreign investment after the lifting of international sanctions. The trip was originally planned for November but postponed because of the attacks in Paris.
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