President of Iran Hassan Rouhani to meet Pope Francis on Saturday

An important meeting between Pope Franics and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is scheduled for this weekend. But the historic encounter presents unique challenges to the Pontiff.

On November 14, Pope Francis will meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the Vatican. It will be the first time a pope has met with a head of the Islamic Republic since Pope St. John Paul II received President Mohamed Khatami at the Vatican on March 11, 1999.

The encounter between the two leaders will take place while Rouhani is in Italy ahead of a visit to Paris and just weeks after Pope Francis’ General Audience of October 28, which commemorated the 50th anniversary of the promulgation of Nostra Aetate. That document from the Second Vatican Council concerns the Church and non-Christian religions, and it opened a new chapter in the history of relations between Muslims and Catholics.

Both this month’s meeting and last month’s audience are part of an on-going dialogue between the Holy See and Iran. Last February, Pope Francis met with the nation’s Vice-President for Women and Family Affairs, Shahindokht Molaverdi. A concrete result of their meeting was the invitation of a delegation of leading women from Iran to the World Meeting of Families, held in September in Philadelphia.

In the diplomatic history between Iran and the Vatican, Blessed Paul VI holds a prominent place. He visited Iran on November 26, 1970 en route to the Far East. During his brief stopover there, he met with the Sha, Mohammad Pahlavi. It was the last time a pope visited the country; while Pope Francis’ trip to the Middle East in May 2014 included stops in Jordan and the Holy Land, he did not visit Iran.

Although encounters between popes and Iranian premiers are somewhat rare, papal delegates have been known to travel to the Islamic Republic more frequently. French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the current president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, has been there several times. He served as the secretary for Relations with States between 1990 and 2003. Since June 25, 2007, he has headed the Vatican dicastery responsible for dialogue with Muslims.

The Vatican enjoys better relations with Iran than some other Middle Eastern nations, but it still faces uphill challenges. Despite the poor state of religious liberty there, Middle Eastern Catholics do enjoy some freedoms. Even still, it is illegal for Muslims to convert to Christianity. But back in February, Molaverdi said, “We have much more in common than we think, or that could possibly divide us.”

Source: Catholic World Report