As with many significant and historical events, the Iranian president’s visit to Italy and the Vatican City is marked with controversy. The visit from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is a historic one; this is the first time in nearly two decades that an Iranian president has met with a Roman Catholic Pope.
According to The New York Times, the meeting was intended by the Vatican to be a dialogue on interreligious tolerance and peace, and to explore Iran’s important role of stability in the region. The meeting between the two lasted about 40 minutes. The New York Times says that the Iranian president shaking hands with Pope Francis is a tremendous step forward for Iranian-Western relations, especially riding the coat-tails of the lifted sanctions on the Middle Eastern country on Jan. 16.
The Vatican, according to The New York Times, sees Shiite regimes such as Iranian President Rouhani and Syrian President Assad as vital for protecting Christian minorities in the Middle East from radical and militant Sunni groups.
However, not all were pleased with the visit and the circumstances. As the Iranian delegation toured various significant Italian and Roman cultural sites, such as art museums and the Colosseum, many Italian sculptures and art pieces were covered as they contained or portrayed nude humans, The Washington Post reports. The Italian government also declined to serve wine or other alcoholic beverages at the state dinner for the Iranian government. This protocol is in place for any visiting Muslim dignitaries; however, this has drawn the ire of some of the Italian people as well as certain former and current government officials. According to The Guardian, several Italian politicians decried this as “cultural submission,” and were outraged at the actions taken by their countrymen.
NBC News reported, politicians from all different ideological backgrounds found fault with the actions taken for the Iranians. A member of the conservative Brothers of Italy Party said that the move “exceeded all levels of decency,” and that “the only thing to cover is the face of [the Italian Prime Minister] not our classic statues.” A liberal supporter agreed with this statement, claiming these acts as “disgraceful” and a “humiliation” to Italy. It is claimed by the left that these action are a “violation of the principles of a secular state and national sovereignty.”
However, politicians think otherwise. The controversial moves to screen the statues and art appear to have been decisions made by Italian authorities other than the Prime Minister. Both the Italian and the Iranian governments deny requesting the actions, though the Iranians appreciated the gesture, according to The Guardian.
Although there were some hiccups in Italy, according to The Washington Post President Rouhani visited other countries and signed $18 billion worth of deals with Western companies and governments, a success for the Iranian nation soon after the Iranian nuclear deal. Part of the nuclear deal that went into place was the lifting of sanctions that had been placed on them because of their nuclear program.
The New York Times says Pope Francis mentioned the step was in the right direction, and after he gave President Rouhani a medal to St. Martin and a copy of “Laudato Si”, he said he “hoped for peace.” Giving an illustrated book and handmade rug, President Rouhani asked the Holy Father to “pray for him.”
Editor’s Note: Information from the Washington Post, The Guardian, NBC News and The New York Times was used in this report.