Pope Francis has urged Iran to work with other Middle Eastern states to promote peace and combat terrorism. President Hassan Rouhani is visiting Italy and France as part of an effort to rebuild ties with the West.
During a private meeting at the Vatican on Tuesday, Pope Francis said Iran had an important role to play "to promote adequate political solutions to the problems that afflict the Middle East," including terrorism and arms trafficking.
A Vatican statement said the talks were "cordial" and touched upon the recent nuclear accord between Iran and world powers, as well as Holy See efforts "for the promotion of the dignity of human beings and religious freedom."
"I thank you for your visit and I hope for peace," the Argentine pontiff, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, told President Rouhani. The Iranian leader then presented the pope with a red-toned carpet made in the ancient city of Qhom. In return, he received a medal depicting St. Martin cutting his cloak in half to give to a beggar.
Rouhani's four-day trip to Italy and France comes some two weeks after financial sanctions on Iran were rolled back following a nuclear deal with world powers last year. Since that agreement, Rouhani has been keen to carve out a greater role for his country in mediating Middle East conflicts. However, in the same period, ties with regional rival and Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia have deteriorated.
Iran is the strongest ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while western countries have thrown their support behind his opponents in Syria's five-year civil war. Western countries have also criticized Iran for its human rights abuses and alleged funding of some militant groups.
Rouhani's visit to the Vatican was the first by an Iranian president since 1999.
Growth crucial to fighting terrorism
Earier in the day, Rouhani told a forum of business leaders in Rome that "Iran is the safest and most stable country of the entire region...We are ready to welcome investment, welcome technology and create a new export market."
Rouhani also pledged that Tehran would do nothing to jeopordize its stability, adding that economic growth could help beat terrorism in the region.
"Lack of growth creates forces for terrorism. Unemployment creates soldiers for terrorists," Rouhani said.
On Wednesday, before leaving for Paris, Rouhani was due to be given a private tour of the Colosseum.
nm/msh (Reuters, AP, AFP)