ITALY P4, FOREIGN, PAGE A25, REGIONAL Pope John Paul II stands with Iran's President Mohammad Khatami at the Vatican 11 March 1999, during a special audience that could lay ground for better relations between Christians and Muslims. Kahatami is the first Iranian leader to visit western Europe since the 1979 Islamic revolution. ORG XMIT: I07 Pope John Paul II and Iranian President Mohammad Khatami at the Vatican in March 1999. (Massimo Sambucetti/AFP)

On Tuesday morning, Pope Francis welcomed Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to the Vatican — a historic act that seems to herald the return of Iran to the international stage and a new embrace by Western institutions. But it isn't the first time that an Iranian political leader has visited the head of the Catholic Church in recent memory.

In 1999, Pope John Paul II met with then-Iranian President Mohammad Khatami at the Vatican. It was the first encounter between the head of the Catholic Church and an Iranian leader since the revolution that had turned Iran into an Islamic republic. Although the Vatican had not broken off diplomatic relations with Iran after 1979, the last formal meeting between the leaders of the two sides had been in 1970, when Pope Paul VI met with the shah of Iran in Tehran.

Critics of the Iranian regime had opposed the pope's meeting with Khatami in 1999, but the Iranian leader — a Shiite theologian who was considered a reformist — was later effusive in his message of openness. "The hope is for the final victory of monotheism, ethics and morality, together with peace and reconciliation," he told the pope after their 25-minute meeting, the Associated Press reported.

The pair exchanged gifts, with the pope giving Khatami a painting of the saints Peter and Paul, and the Iranian leader reciprocating with a handmade Persian rug that featured a design of St. Mark's Basilica in Venice. Later, Khatami told an audience in Florence that there are no "quintessential differences" between faiths.

According to reports, one cleric in the Iranian delegation had kissed the pope on the cheek in an apparent act of deference. The pontiff himself also seemed happy with the meeting. "I want to thank you for this visit, which I consider both important and full of promise," the Irish Times reported him as saying.

The pair kept in touch. In October 2001, shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, Khatami telephoned John Paul  and told him that the "massacres" showed that there was a need for "collaboration between Islam and Christianity to save humans and establish a real peace in the world." After the phone call, one Western diplomat told Agence France-Presse that the pope and the Iranian leader were "people who respect each other."

In 2005, when the pontiff died, Khatami was among those who traveled to the Vatican to pay his respects. He would later congratulate the pope's successor, telling the Iranian news media that he was "absolutely delighted" that Pope Benedict XVI had been appointed.


Iranian President Mohammad Khatami is greeted by Bishop James Harvey as he arrives to attend the funeral of Pope John Paul II in the Vatican on April 8, 2005. (Lucian Perkins/The Washington Post)

Despite the good wishes, relations between the Vatican and Iran quickly became strained. Khatami left office a few months later, replaced by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a conservative figure who had a difficult relationship with the West.

To make matters worse, Benedict gave a controversial speech in 2006 in which he quoted a 14th-century dialogue between the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologos and a Persian scholar in which the emperor had said that the teachings of the Islamic prophet Muhammad were "evil and inhuman" and had links to violence. Although the pope did not endorse the comments, they sparked protests in the Islamic world. Khatami, then out of office, visited the Vatican in 2007. "These wounds are very deep," he told reporters ahead of the meeting. "There are many wounds, and they cannot heal that easily." Later, Ahmadinejad apparently made requests for the pope to visit Iran, but they were rebuffed repeatedly.

It wasn't until the surprise resignation of Benedict in 2013 that things opened up again. His successor, Francis, has praised the recent nuclear agreement between world powers and Iran, describing it as "a definitive step toward a more secure and fraternal world." Rouhani, who replaced Ahmadinejad in 2013, has emphasized a renewed bond with the Vatican: On Tuesday, he gave Francis a handmade rug from the Iranian holy city of Qom.

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