Pope Benedict XVI has shared his thoughts with Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on how to achieve world peace, and at the same time appealed for greater religious freedom in the Middle East.
In a letter to the Iranian president, made public by the Vatican on Nov. 11 and written in response to a missive from the Iranian president last month, Benedict XVI took the opportunity to explain to Ahmadinejad that peace is above all “a gift from God, which is sought in prayer.” He also stressed it is “the result of the efforts of people of good will.”
In this perspective, the Pope continued, “believers of every religion have a special responsibility and can play a decisive role, cooperating in common initiatives.” He also reaffirmed his belief that interreligious and intercultural dialogue “is a fundamental path to peace.”
The Pope’s letter, hand delivered to Ahmadinejad this week by Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican’s point-man on interreligious dialogue, is both courteous and positive without being overtly critical. Secularism, an area of common concern, was also highlighted.
The Pope wrote that it was his “profound conviction that respect for the transcendent dimension of the human person is an indispensable condition for the construction of a just social order and a stable peace.” And he underlined that a person’s relationship with God “is the ultimate foundation for the inalienable dignity and sacred character of every human life.”
Ahmadinejad had appealed in his letter for greater collaboration between religions and blamed “extremist humanism” in the West for “the decline of human society.” Benedict XVI has similar apprehensions, although he prefers the term “radical secularism.”
The Iranian president had also praised the Vatican for condemning the burning of the Quran, but the Pope didn’t mention this (the Vatican never issued a formal statement of condemnation although some senior officials spoke out against it).
In the pontiff’s letter, Benedict XVI took the opportunity to defend Iran’s 10,000 or so Catholics. Although they are allowed to worship in Iran, Iranian Muslims cannot freely convert to the Catholic faith and the country’s bishops conference does not have official status.
Not naming Iran directly, the Pope said that in some Middle Eastern countries, Christians “face difficult circumstances, discrimination and even violence and they lack the freedom to live and publicly profess their faith.”
He also stressed the positive contribution Catholics play in Iranian society as peace builders, and referred to a recent Vatican synod on the Middle East in which religious freedom was extensively discussed. “I am certain that the work of the Synod will bear good fruit for the Church and for the whole of society,” the Pope wrote. And he argued for a “bilateral commission” that would be “especially helpful in addressing questions of common concern, including that of the juridical status of the Catholic Church in the country.”
The Pope closed by expressing his hope that the “cordial relations” between Iran and the Holy See continue.
The Islamic Republic and the Holy See — both theocratic states — have long had friendly diplomatic ties: Since it established formal relations with the Holy See in 1953, Iran has supported the church on some life issues. However, the Holy See hasn’t held back from criticizing Iran when necessary, especially over Holocaust denial and the country’s nuclear ambitions.
Neither of these was explicitly mentioned in the letter. Benedict XVI, who prefers to make his opinions known in an indirect, non-judgmental and impersonal fashion, appealed above all to reason and good will.
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