President Rouhani reaches out

Iran makes conciliatory soundings to the Vatican, writes Paul Keenan

With all eyes turned towards international talks in Geneva, Switzerland last week in heightened anticipation of a long overdue deal between Western powers and Iran on that country’s nuclear ambitions, less attention was paid to a meeting taking place in Tehran itself.

On November 5, the Vatican’s new Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Leo Boccardi travelled across the Iranian capital to present his credentials to President Hassan Rouhani. The meeting between the pair gave rise to a conciliatory exchange in which the Iranian leader was at pains to stress common challenges for Christianity and Islam which are best faced together.

Common enemies

“Today we have common objectives and enemies. Extremism and terrorism are our common enemies and, based on the divine teachings, human interactions and cooperation for the elimination of poverty and injustice are common objectives,” he said, adding, “some countries in our region are now plagued with security problems and civil wars as a result of which both Muslims and Christians are suffering.”

Taking to Twitter later, President Rouhani posted a photograph of his meeting with Nuncio Boccardi, and wrote: “Islam and Christianity need to dialogue more than ever today, as the basis of conflicts between religions is mainly ignorance and the lack of mutual understanding.”

Talk is cheap

Talk is cheap, some will of course point out, and it must be acknowledged that during his welcome address, President Rouhani also insisted that “Iran’s religious minorities are free to conduct their religious rituals in their own places of worship”. Based on stories that have regularly featured in the pages of The Irish Catholic, the claim is hard to offer full credence to. Certainly the Iranian constitution offers full and equal protection to all religions, but the state has been most reluctant to offer said protection to converts from Islam, who are routinely judged to be undermining national security in their activities.

Equally, however, it must be acknowledged that Mr Rouhani’s presidency is barely three months old (he was elected on August 3), and therefore surely qualifies for the western courtesy of the 100-day ‘honeymoon period’ before definitive judgement is handed down.

It has certainly been an interesting period. During that time it was Mr Rouhani who became the first Iranian leader in a generation to speak with an American president when he engaged in a courteous exchange with Barack Obama via telephone on September 26, and whose leadership has opened up the fresh round of nuclear talks. For his pains, Mr Rouhani was ‘rewarded’ at home in that now familiar fashion when hardliners pelted his cortege with shoes to demonstrate their anger at any reaching out to the ‘Great Satan’ that for them is America.

The same mistrust was evident in one online post reacting to the arrival of the new nuncio, warning that the Church and its envoy may simply be a “Trojan Horse” for Western designs against Iran.

Lack of trust

There is a distinct lack of trust on both sides, of course. As national representatives gathered in Geneva, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned of a “very bad deal” in which Iran would everything and the West would lose everything. America’s allies in the Persian Gulf region will most likely feel the same.

Perhaps they are right to continue wary. Yet, at the same time, maybe, just maybe, Archbishop Boccardi is correct in his insistence to his new hosts that the door to dialogue must be kept open to allow for the possibility that mutual trust will flow.