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    » 05/23/2006, 00.00

    IRAN - VATICAN

    Ahmadinejad's intent to write to Pope fuelled by fanaticism, political reasons

    Dariush Mirzai

    One wonders if, alongside the predicted call to convert to Islam, the president will tell Benedict XVI about the painful legal and social situation discriminating against Iranian Christians.

    Tehran (AsiaNews) – It's been whispered around Tehran, and written in the conservative daily, "Jomhouri Eslami" (meaning "Islamic Republic) on 18 May: the president of Iran is drafting a letter to Pope Benedict XVI. Already before writing to the US President, Ahmadinejad has effectively announced that this year, he will be dispatching a series of letter to heads of State.

    The Iranian authorities have dedicated the Persian year 1385 (that started on 21 March 2006) to the figure of Muhammad, and, like Muhammad, they are using the same forms of concluding greetings (Vasalam Ala Man Ataba'al hoda). Ahmadinejad seems to be intent on writing to the "kings" of his time, to communicate a warning and an invitation to convert to Islam.

    Would Ahmadinejad hesitate to ask the Successor of Peter to recognize Muhammad as a prophet? No, Christians living in Iran would spontaneously reply. They would not hesitate to say so, not because they consider Ahmadinejad to be a "fool" – as the western media often see him – but because the question is typical of Muslim-Christian meetings at all levels. After the negative and evasive answer of the Christian interlocutor, comes the argument: "But we recognize Jesus as a prophet, so why don't you have the same openness, why don't you recognize Muhammad?" In Iran, where the Christian is part of a minority and treated as a dhimmi ("protected", second class citizen), it is quite difficult to reply that for a Christian, when one talks about the only begotten Son of God, Jesus, the Muslim prophet is practically a caricature, if not a blasphemy.

    Christians in Iran enjoy rights denied to other minorities, the most numerous of which are the Bahai. Like Jews and Zoroastrians, they are allowed freedom of worship, with some limitations, and they have an official statute that allows them to marry, to give teachings, to vote. But these rights must always remain within the limits fixed by the law and by the arbitrariness of the given time.

    Discriminated against in legal texts, by the authorities and by society, Christians in Iran now number very few. Exile and assimilation are ever present temptations or pressures. The result of this situation was indicated by Mgr Giovanni Lajolo on 17 May: "In Iran, those adhering to the Catholic faith used to be 0.1% of the population in 1973, while in 2005 this figure was reduced to 0.01%." A true decimation. Even other minorities, Orthodox and Protestant, suffer from the same problems described by Mgr Lajolo before the Assembly of the Pontifical Council for the Care of Migrants and Itinerant People.

    If he writes to the pope, will Ahmadinejad speak about Christian minorities, about Catholics in Iran? Will he speak honestly about their legal and social situation? Perhaps he will not even mention the thousand-year Christian communities in the country of Tobbiolo, Queen Esther and the three Kings. Perhaps Ahmadinejad will do as some theologians and western experts of dialogue did, when they visited President Khatami as oft self-proclaimed representatives of their faith, as guests "in the land of Islam".

    Engineer Ahmadinejad amuses some Iranians and irritates others with his Islamist illusions of grandeur. Poor, short, badly dressed, the man wants to be not only president, but to take on the role of prophet. The leader of the legal opposition, former presidential candidate Karroubi, holds that the letter to Bush was taking things a tad too far. It should have been written by a theologian, a cleric, and it should have been signed by the true head of State, said Karroubi, referring to the Supreme Leader Khamenei. This argument is not entirely incorrect, if one remembers the preceding solemn letter sent by Khomeini to Gorbachev in 1989.

    Some reactions have been the opposite of Karroubi's: enthusiastic, like that of the mullah Jannati, who, in a solemn homily, described the letter to Bush as "inspired by God". What would he think of a possible letter to the pope then? Jannati, drawing the ire and ironic disdain of Karroubi and the prudent silence of other protagonists of the regime, even said these letters "al la Muhammad" should be read in schools in future, and studied in Iranian universities.

    The political move of Ahmadinejad did make an impression, at least in his own country and in some circles outside. If compared to the videos of the leaders of Al Qaeda aired on Arab satellite channels, the letter to Bush, which contains a critique of the west that is none too different, has a much more solemn and authoritarian style. Fanatical Ahmadinejad certainly is, but stupid, he is not. The impact of future letters depends much on their quality and on the reaction of interlocutors: increasing or decreasing.

    Iranian political reactions after the letter to Bush illustrate the significance of a political paradigm hitherto practically unheard of within the Iranian regime: not only are there reformists against conservatives, or religious opportunists against revolutionary militants, but also "enlightened" ideologues, like Jannati, against more realistic theocrats.

    A year ago, Khatami attended the funeral of John Paul II, presided over by the then Cardinal Ratzinger. The former Iranian president surprised the world – and perplexed Iranians – when he accepted to exchange a few words in Farsi with his Israeli counterpart. Now the situation is entirely different. Who, in the spring of 2005, would ever have mooted the possibility of a solemn letter by Ahmadinejad to Pope Benedict XVI?

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    See also

    28/12/2006 IRAN – VATICAN
    Ahmadinejad, “Christmas miracles” and the letter to the Pope
    With the embargo in mind, Iran’s president launches a charm offensive towards Christians. In his Christmas message he even exalted the eschatological return of Jesus and acknowledged the value of the Christian community in Iran.

    22/09/2006 VATICAN – ISLAM
    Pope to meet ambassadors from Muslim countries
    The odd protest is still taking place in some Muslim countries. Pakistani scholars call for Benedict XVI'S removal. Former Iranian President Rafsanjani sees Muslim protests as a "blessing" for the Muslim world. But Russian muftis are satisfied with the Pope's explanations.

    25/05/2009 CHINA – VATICAN
    The day of Prayer for the Church in China under control. Pope’s Letter is blocked
    No diocesan pilgrimages to the Sanctuary of Sheshan because of bans. Little publicity even in the diocese of Shanghai. In Hebei the Catholics go without mass because the priests are under arrest. Access to the Vatican website with Benedict XVI’s Letter (in Chinese) is still blocked.

    24/05/2012 CHINA - VATICAN
    Month long Chinese crackdown on Donglu Marian shrine
    Catholic source tells AsiaNews that security measures have been tightened in the village, used to accommdoate a Marian shrine. Officials enforce round-the-clock control on the village. Lay Catholic leaders are also under surveillance. Banners call for resistance against "foreign infiltration". Faithful pray instead to Our Lady for Church unity.

    16/06/2009 VATICAN - CHINA - HONG KONG
    Card. Zen: It is time to put into effect the Popes Letter to China’s Catholics, whatever the cost
    The bishop emeritus of Hong Kong says the Pope’s Letter has marked a new chapter in the life of the Church in China. But the criteria established by the pontiff regarding religious freedom are being watered down and rendered ambiguous. He fears a slide towards an era of comprise, in which the many efforts towards the Church in China are being made in vain. Religious freedom is more important that diplomatic relations. Today Beijing seems less interested in having relations with the Holy See, thanks to a relaxing in relations with Taiwan.



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