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POPE-IRAN Oct-29-2009 (570 words) xxxi

Pope calls for strengthening of religious freedom in Iran

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Benedict XVI called on Iran to strengthen guarantees of religious freedom for the country's tiny Catholic minority.

Welcoming Iran's new ambassador to the Vatican Oct. 29, the pope praised the "deep religious sensibility" of the Iranian people, and said the Catholic community there -- which dates to the church's early centuries -- has a long history of living in harmony with the Muslim majority.

"The Holy See trusts that the Iranian authorities will know how to strengthen and guarantee for Christians the freedom to profess their faith," the pope told the ambassador, Ali Akbar Naseri, in a speech.

He said the Vatican expects the Iranian government to "assure to the Catholic community the essential conditions for its existence, notably the possibility of having sufficient religious personnel and ease of movement throughout the country to ensure religious services for the faithful."

The pope said he hoped for a dialogue with authorities that would help "improve the situation of Christian communities" in the context of civil society, as well as reinforce their sense of belonging to the life of the nation.

In Iran, a country of about 70 million people, there are about 100,000 Christians, the vast majority of whom are Armenian Orthodox. According to Vatican statistics, Catholics number about 17,000.

The pope avoided specific mention of international political issues, including Iran's nuclear energy program. But the ambassador used his speech to the pontiff to denounce critics of the Iranian nuclear program, as well as what he called the "Islamophobic politics" of the West.

The ambassador said Iran's program to develop a nuclear energy program is in line with international norms and reflects Iran's support for nuclear disarmament.

He said it was a source of "amazement and strong protest" that Iran's peaceful nuclear program has been obstructed by some powerful nations, while countries that have nuclear weapons continue to be supported.

The United States and other Western countries fear that Iran could turn enriched uranium into weapons, and as a compromise solution the International Atomic Energy Agency recently proposed that Iran ship and store most of its uranium abroad. The proposal was being given consideration by Iran.

The ambassador said Iran's Christians have always enjoyed respect for their rights. He noted that despite their low numbers the country's Christians still are allocated three parliamentary seats.

The ambassador outlined a wide array of potential areas for Iranian-Vatican cooperation, saying the two states shared common positions against atheism, social injustice and oppression, the use of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism -- in particular religious terrorism -- and the "military aggression of arrogant powers."

He also complained of an "imperialism of information" in the modern world, and the "spread of immorality" through satellite dishes and the Internet.

In resolving world problems, the ambassador said, a decisive contribution can be made by "the two great Abrahamic religions, Christianity and Islam." He omitted Judaism, the third monotheistic religion with a spiritual tradition that goes back to Abraham.

In his speech, the pope said faith in God should prompt all believers to work for the defense of human values and rights, beginning with religious liberty and freedom of conscience. He noted with satisfaction the series of regular dialogue sessions between the Vatican and Iranian Muslim representatives in recent years.

The pope thanked the ambassador for the "kind words" of his speech, and for the greeting he brought from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

END


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