01/26/2016, 19.48
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Pope Francis and Rouhani: for a Christian renewal in the Middle East and Iran’s Islam

by Bernardo Cervellera

Today's meeting raises hope for regional stability and a stop to the slaughter of Christians, condemned to oblivion at the hands of al Qaeda and Isis, who are also Iran’s enemies. The dialogue between cultures, religions and peoples that began under Khatami, frozen under Ahmadinejad, can now start again. Moderate Islam is also useful to Iranian youth, nauseated by the ayatollahs and the Revolutionary Guards. The Catechism and Catholic theologians are available in Persian translations.

Vatican City (AsiaNews) – There are many reasons to be happy for today’s meeting between Pope Francis and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The foremost one is hope.

Not since Mohammed Khatami’s presidency (1997-2005) has an Iranian leader visited the Vatican. During his tenure, Khatami sought to open a cultural and religious dialogue between Iran and the Catholic Church.

Unfortunately, he was succeeded by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a Holocaust denier whose threats (real and imaginary) against Israel and the international community virtually ended all contacts.

With Rouhani’s victory, moderates are back in power, which raises hope for renewed dialogue based on respect and openness to ideas of co-existence of religions and peoples.

Rouhani’s success is good for the Vatican and the Catholic Church, often seen in the Muslim world as “representing a Western religion” responsible for materialism, colonialism, and immorality, an easy a scapegoat in places like Pakistan, Iraq, or Egypt. . . . where Christians are attacked to strike at the West even though the latter are indigenous to the East, locally rooted for many centuries before the advent of Islam. His victory is also good for Islam in Iran.

Khomeini’s revolution turned Shia traditions upside down, imposing religious controls and Sharia (like in Saudi Arabia), as well as an antagonistic attitude towards everybody else. Yet, historically Shiism was always more mystical and more open to dialogue with other cultures.

Today, Khatami’s legacy is still felt, as exemplified by the institutes responsible for the Islamic Encyclopaedia, whose many tomes show the influence and openness of Islam in the fields of science, philosophy and religion.

Last year I visited the University of Religions and Denominations in Qom. One of its activities is the translation of sacred texts from various traditions, like Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. Some of its scholars have even translated the catechism of the Catholic Church into Farsi, with an introduction by Card Jean-Louis Tauran.

Going back to a more open and mystical form of Shiism would be good for Iranian society where 50 per cent of the population is made up of young people. Increasingly disgusted by the politicisation of mosques and heavy-handed social controls, young Iranians are turning their backs to the mullahs and the Pasdaran, the Revolutionary Guards, object of their mockery.

Politically, the regime’s survival is at stake because of the rise of al Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) group, who are ethnically cleansing Arab societies of the polluting presence of Christians and their modernity and openness.

Getting Iran on board in the fight against IS, the talks on Syria, in Iraq and Lebanon would bring some balance to the region’s tense situation.

In Iran, Christians are ghettoised, banned from missionary activity, but their life is relatively safe, not exposed to incidents and attacks, with better guarantees that in the neighbouring Gulf States and the Arabian Peninsula.

For Iran, survival remains a main goal. To the extent that the country grows and moderates get stronger, Iran will provide jobs to its population.

The Green Wave, the protest movement sparked by Ahmadinejad’s rigged 3009 victory, was drowned in blood, but those individuals and civil society groups who took part in it are still alive and want nothing more than to be freed from the ayatollahs and the economic stranglehold of the Pasdaran. Without moderates in power, Iran could slide towards domestic strife.

A moderate victory could lead to increased contacts and trade with the international community. Italy, where Rouhani undertook his first foreign trip after the lifting of sanctions, has already signed agreements worth 17 billion euro. France, Germany, and the United States expect to get their share of Iranian trade.

From this point of view, for Rouhani the meeting with Pope Francis Rouhani allows Iran back into the international community, a bit like what the Vatican Secretariat of State did for US-Cuban relations.

Human rights remain a problem in Iran: death penalty, incarceration, censorship, restrictions on social media, etc. This is the old Iran, against which Rouhani is fighting.

The successful nuclear agreement, the acceptance of UN monitoring, and the release of US prisoners are steps to follow. Hence, we should befriend Rouhani, not condemn him.

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