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?