Pope Francis hosts Iran's president as Vatican aide pleas for Syria talks to remember Christians, minorities
Meetings and talks of meetings are taking place that a year ago seemed improbable, but will they lead to peace in Syria?
Pope Francis and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani have met at the Vatican, discussing human rights and Iran's role in the Middle East, in part of a push by Tehran to reintroduce itself to the West after years of stringent sanctions.
On the same day the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, invited the Syrian government and opposition to peace talks due to start in Geneva on Jan. 29.
The news came in a UN statement on Jan. 26 but it didn't specify exactly which groups have been invited, and the matter is already the subject of disagreement.
The meeting between the Pope and President Rouhani is the first of its kind since 1999 when Pope St. John Paul II received in audience at the Vatican the then Iranian president Mohammad Khatami, Vatican Radio reported.
The Vatican meeting came on the second day of a four-day visit by Rouhani to Italy and France, The Wall Street Journal reported.
It was the first trip abroad by the Iranian president since United Nations sanctions on Iran were loosened earlier this month after it agreed to implement key restrictions on its nuclear program.
40 MINUTE TALKS
Francis and Rouhani met for 40 minutes, which The Wall St. Journal said was extraordinarily long compared with typical State meetings held by the Pope. Rouhani was accompanied by a 12-person entourage, including his foreign minister.
"I thank you for your visit and I hope for peace," Francis told the Iranian leader at the end of a 40-minute meeting in the pope's private study in the Vatican's Apostolic Palace, Reuters news agency reported.
Vatican Radio reported that Pope Francis and President Rouhani discussed bilateral relations, problems afflicting the Middle East area including the recently-signed Iran nuclear agreement and other international issues.
Iran is also part of the equation for a Syrian peace break through as it is seen as a key ally of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
The Vatican said "during the cordial discussions, common spiritual values emerged and reference was made to the good state of relations between the Holy See and the Islamic Republic of Iran, the life of the Church in the country and the action of the Holy See to favor the promotion of the dignity of the human person and religious freedom."
On the same day as the historic meeting at the Vatican, its representative to the United Nations agencies in Geneva said the "needs of Christians" and other religious minorities must be "taken into serious consideration" at U.N.-sponsored talks aimed at ending the Syrian civil war.
The talks are scheduled to begin Jan. 29 in Geneva, and last for 6 months. The United Nations said the first priority is a broad ceasefire, providing humanitarian aid, and halting the threat posed by the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
"We hope the specific needs of the Christians, the Yazidis, and other communities that are not part of the Muslim majority be taken into serious consideration," said Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations in Geneva.
"If we hope for an authentic ceasefire and possible beginning of reconstruction of the social and material fabric of society in Syria, then the human rights of these communities have to be taken into account," Tomasi told Vatican Radio.