Iran’s view of Francis: “A religious leader who believes in dialogue”

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"Vatican Insider" has interviewed the Ambassador of Tehran to the Holy See, Mohammad Taher Rabbani.“One of the Pope’s striking traits is the humility and love he feels for people.” This is how the ambassador, one of the first diplomats to present his letters of credence to the new Pope last year, talks to Vatican Insider about Francis’ first year as Pope and about the forthcoming visit to the Holy Land. Following is the text of the interview:

Mr. Ambassador, what is your impression of the first year of Francis’ pontificate?
“Pope Francis is the first Pope from Latin America to be elected as head of the universal Church. I would like to congratulate the Holy Father and all Catholics around the world for this good choice. One of the Pope’s striking traits is the humility and love he feels for people. He grew up in a middle class family and lived among the ordinary people and this meant he was able to experience people’s pain, suffering and marginalization up close. His studies also helped a great deal in shaping his religious and political thinking. Aside from his extensive religious and theological, literary, philosophical and psychological studies, he belongs to the Society of Jesus, which looks at the acquisition of knowledge, the importance of education and the purification of the soul in a special kind of way: all this has contributed to Francis’ vision of inclusion and his deep thinking.”

What do you have to say about the new elements in Francis’ style?
“Another thing that sets this Pope apart is that despite his special position, he completely ignores all superfluous formalities that prevent him from coming into contact with people and a variety of social classes. He pays particular attention to the vulnerable and excluded, to the concept of education and the reinforcement of the institution of the family. Thanks to this attitude and his words, he transmits a sincere closeness. As the messengers said, religious leaders like Pope Francis are “soul doctors” who free people from spiritual and social problems, bringing peace to them thanks to their own spirituality and heavenly teachings.”

What is the Republic of Iran’s perception of him?
“The Islamic Republic of Iran sees the Pope as an open minded leader of deep thought and a man of great faith who wants justice, peace and a dignified life for people of all races, so that everybody may receive divine gifts. The Holy Father firmly believes in dialogue between religions and denominations.”

Last September the Pope celebrated a vigil of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria. There was a huge response across the world, and not just from Christians. What do you think of this?
“One of the positive key steps Pope Francis took, which will be remembered throughout history, was calling last year’s day of prayer and fasting for peace and an end to violence in Syria. The people of the world showed themselves to be on the same wavelength as the Pope, sharing his support for peace and friendship. People hate the massacres, violence and chaos which terrorists and takfir groups are responsible for. More than three years have gone by since the start of the devastating crisis caused by the Syrian civil war, which has claimed the lives of 140 thousand people and left numerous archaeological sites and places of worship in ruins. The suffering Syrian population has to endure displacement and the bitter consequences of uncertainty and violence. I ask myself: what have international institutions done so far to stop this violence? Is it not time for powerful countries look at the dramatic conditions in which the Syrian people are living in in the Middle East, before starting another war in the Crimean peninsula? Perhaps they are considering starting another war in the Black Sea? I hope that Francis will appeal once again to the great powers, inviting them to put an end to the violence and this pointless war in Syria.

Next month Francis will be paying a quick visit to the Holy Land (three countries – Jordan, Palestinian Territories and Israel – in three days). How important is this visit for peace and dialogue between Christians and Muslims?
“Wise Muslims and Christians have been engaged in interreligious dialogue for years. For example, the ninth round of dialogue talks between Iran and the Holy See will be taking place in Teheran this year. As the Church history has shown in recent decades, every Pope since John Paul II in 2000, have put a visit to the Holy Land in their agenda. In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI paid an official visit to Middle Eastern countries and the occupied territories. A religious leader’s mission makes it essential for them to listen to the voice of the people up close and be aware of their pain and suffering. The aim of these visits is to promote and bring peace and serenity to the Middle East. So these kinds of commitments are in themselves positive, as long as authorities and regional heads of State do not try to use these visits and the Pope and Holy See’s position for their own interests, to make their own dubious actions seem legitimate. If it is political advantages that are sought from these visits, they will do the people no good and neither will they help bring true peace. I would like to underline that the Islamic Republic of Iran is always willing to work with the Holy See in order to restore peace in the region, following a plan that involves the return of all Palestinians to their homeland in the occupied territories and a referendum that involves the participation of all Palestinians, be they Muslim, Christian or Jewish, to decide on their future system of government.”

What can you say about the relations between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Holy See? Why is it important for your country to maintain diplomatic relations with the Vatican and why, in your opinion, is it important for the Vatican to maintain diplomatic relations with your country?
“The Holy See has played an important role in Iranian foreign policy for a long time. Bilateral relations go back a long way and are based on common religious values as well as political considerations. The Holy See and the Islamic Republic of Iran are two religious systems that are both inspired on the spiritual teachings of monotheistic religions. It is upon this basis that they are able to lay the foundations for cooperation and give impetus to bilateral relations. The Holy See’s position with regard to Iran has been relatively balanced compared to that of Western countries. In fact, in some cases it has been in line with certain essential positions our country has upheld. The main factors affecting the Holy See’s foreign policy towards Iran are the following: The moderation and tolerance the Islamic Republic of Iran has shown towards religious minorities, particularly Christians; the benefits of Iran’s influence in the region for the maintenance of regional stability and security, protecting Christian rights; Pope Francis’ commitment to peace is in tune with Iran’s new diplomatic path, that is, strengthening world alliances against violence and extremism; Islam and Christianity have become closer thanks to improved dialogue with Shiite Islam: one of the Islamic world’s most important denominations.”

What role can the Pope and Holy See diplomacy play today in promoting peace?
“The way the Holy See’s is organized, with its focus on the government of the universal Catholic Church, which has more than a billion followers all over the world, means it has a huge role to play in social and spiritual terms, in influencing public opinion across the world. The Holy See has diplomatic relations with more than 181 countries and is present in 33 international and regional organizations. As a result, the Holy See has significant political and diplomatic influence in the international community and especially in countries with Christian majorities. As leader of the universal Catholic Church, the Pope exercises a huge spiritual influence over people and thanks to this powerful international influence, he has the power to bring about significant changes and transformations. Peace and justice are central to his message. He tries to use all the potential and influence that lie within Churches, places of worship and influential religious and political figures, to bring peace to the world and overcome destitution, poverty and the devastation this brings to Christian communities. I hope that in this moment of crisis and social and political upheaval that parts of the world like the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and the Black Sea region are going through, the Pope will continue to play a central role, as he has done in the Syrian crisis.”

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