By Felipe Bueno
Following his diplomatic endeavor to help restore U.S.-Cuban relations, Pope Francis has his eyes set on alleviating the tension in the Middle East. Following the end of Iran’s international isolation, Pope Francis hosted President Hassan Rouhani in the Vatican. The historic event marked the first visit of an Iranian president to the Vatican since 1999, when the then-president Mohammad Khatami visited Pope John Paul II, building a relationship that continued until the Pope’s death.
The main purpose of Rouhani’s visit was to spark investment interest in Iran’s economy. The Middle East Eye reported that Rouhani wanted his country to be seen as an “ideal base for companies seeking a foothold in a region of 300 million people, reassuring would-be investors their contracts would be honored.” When President Rouhani reached Italy, he was greeted with a tour of the Capitoline Museum, where every renaissance sculpture depicting nudity was covered to show “respect to the Iranian culture and sensitivity.” Additionally, following the standard Italian procedure for hosting a Muslim dignitary, a diplomatic dinner was hosted without wine or alcohol, normally a staple of Italian events.
When President Rouhani met with Pope Francis, the two spent 40 minutes in the Vatican speaking in private, with the assistance of a female interpreter. At the end of their discussion, reporters were finally allowed to enter, as the Pope told Rouhani “I thank you for your visit and I hope for peace.” President Rouhani responded with one of the Pope’s catchphrases, stating, “I ask you to pray for me” and “it was a pleasure to meet you and I wish you well in your work.”
At the end of their meeting, the two exchanged gifts. Rouhani gave the Pope a handmade carpet from the ancient city of Qom and the Pope presenting the Iranian President with a medal depicting St. Martin cutting his cloak to give to a beggar. Additionally, President Rouhani was given “Laudato Si,” the Pope’s extended essay on the environmental challenges facing the world, in both English and Arabic.
While the specifics of the talks are unclear, the Vatican said that the two discussed “the importance of inter-religious dialogue and the responsibility of religious communities in promoting reconciliation, tolerance, and peace.” CNN speculates the pair probably discussed the war and humanitarian crisis in Syria.
This would be in the Pope’s best interest, taking into account the number of Christians endangered by Islamic extremists in the area.