Pope John Paul II spoke of the 25-minute meeting as "important and promising." A Vatican statement indicated that the conversation was cordial, and contributed to the "spirit of dialogue between Muslims and Christians." Khatami alluded to "the spirit of Assisi"—a reference to the inter-religious prayer meetings which have been conducted annually at the famed basilica of St. Francis. The Iranian leader said the Assisi meetings, which were begun in 1986 at the behest of Pope John Paul, had furnished "a model for common understanding among religions and peoples."
President Khatami said that he and the Pope shared a hope for "the final victory of monotheism, of morality, and of peace and reconciliation." His discussions with the Holy Father reportedly included a heavy emphasis on affairs in the Middle East, as well as on Christian-Islamic dialogue.
After another private meeting with Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican Secretary of State, Khatami prepared to return to Iran, saying that he was "full of hope for the future" after his trip to Italy, and especially after his meeting with the Pope.
Raising his voice in order to be heard in a room crowded by reporters, Pope John Paul said after the meeting that the meeting had been "important and promising." The discussions were conducted through translators, with the Pope speaking in Italian and Khatami using his native Farsi tongue. The language barrier did not inhibit a friendly exchange, and one of the Muslim leaders accompanying Khatami embraced the Holy Father as they prepared to leave the papal library.
Vatican officials had been prepared for demonstrations staged by opponents of the Iranian regime, and there was a heavy police presence in St. Peter’s Square before the meeting. But only one group of demonstrators arrived: about 50 people chanted anti-Khatami slogans. Much noisier protests had been staged on the streets of Rome the previous day, when Khatami was meeting with Italian political leaders.
Although this was the first meeting between an Islamic leader of Iran and the Roman Pontiff, diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Iran have remained regular for the past 20 years, despite the uproar caused by the revolution of February 1979. Pope John Paul had previously met with Iran’s Prime Minister Amir Hossein Masavi in January 1989, and with the country’s foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, last year.
In his meeting with the Pope— and more particularly in his subsequent conversation with Cardinal Sodano—Khatami was probably questioned closely about the situation facing Catholics and other religious minorities in Iran. The Holy See is seeking to expand the freedoms enjoyed by these religious minorities, including the freedom to publish books and magazines, and to obtain visas for unrestricted foreign travel.
The extraordinary 86-page special in L’Osservatore Romano traces the life story of Cardinal Stepinac, who was imprisoned for 16 years by the Communist regime in Yugoslavia. It also includes testimonials from his fellow victims of Communist persecution.
Cardinal Franjo Kuharic, who now leads the Zagreb archdiocese which was the See of Cardinal Stepinac, was in Rome along with the other Croatian bishops when the special issue of L’Osservatore was published. He recalled the day of his own priestly ordination in 1945. Cardinal Stepinac, who performed the ceremony, warned the newly ordained priests that they were stepping into a dangerous situation, in which the government sought to eradicate Catholicism, and the young priests might be called to martyrdom.
Cardinal Kuharic said that the special edition devoted to Cardinal Stepinac should "help men of good will to understand the truth" about the newly beatified Croatian hero. The legacy of Cardinal Stepinac is often misunderstood, he pointed out, because of "the long and incessant propaganda campaign" against him. That propaganda campaign was originally launched by the Communist regime to distract attention from the true reason for the criminal charges which were lodged against Cardinal Stepinac: his refusal to break ties between the Croatian Church and the Vatican. Cardinal Stepinac was imprisoned and eventually killed, Cardinal Kuharic said, because of "his attachment to Peter’s successor, and his refusal to split off from Rome."
Bishop Marko Sopi, the Catholic bishop of Kosovo, Rexhep Boja, president of the Islamic Community of Kosovo, and Bishop Kyr Sava of the Serbian Orthodox Church will all attend the meetings, said American Rabbi Arthur Schneier of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation on Wednesday. "We will challenge the Kosovo religious leaders to do their share to avoid further bloodshed and to help restore their fractured community," said Schneier.
A majority of Kosovo's population is ethnically Albanian and are mainly Muslim. The Kosovo Albanians have been engaged in a battle for autonomy from mainly Orthodox Serbia over the past year that has left hundreds of men, women, and children dead. The threat of Western military involvement and 17 days of peace talks in France last month produced a peace plan, but Serbia and the Kosovo Liberation Army have yet to sign the document.
The three-day Vienna meeting begins on Tuesday and could coincide with a second round of political negotiations in France expected to last three or four days. "This endeavor provides an opportunity to create an improved climate for substantive talks, which cannot be accomplished by ground troops, bombs, or solely by the negotiations of political leaders," Schneier said.
Urging leaders to review Pope John Paul II's talk to youth in Saint Louis in January, Bishop Boland remembered that the Holy Father "is telling the young people, don't wait, go out today and do Christ's work".
The bishop especially highlighted the mission of youth to be "evangelizers among their peers", mission that must be encouraged and supported by those that guide them. "Young people can play a distinct role, and you are their mentors, their leaders and their guides", the Bishop said.