Church Officials Optimistic That Iran Is Changing its Views of Christians Vatican official, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei talk about improving Muslim-Christian relations.
Church officials from Austria have urged closer contacts with Iran after the first visit by a Roman Catholic leader in two decades to the Shi'ite Muslim country.
A leading ecumenist said Iran's state and religious authorities were showing a "new openness," and would consider extending the rights of local Christian minorities.
About 93 percent of Iran's 66 million citizens are Shi'ite Muslim, 5 percent Sunni Muslim, and 2 percent belong to other faiths. According to the World Churches Handbook, Iran has a range of small Christian churches, the biggest being the Armenian Orthodox Church, followed by the Roman Catholic Church, and other Protestant and Orthodox churches.
"Iranian leaders are genuinely seeking solutions to their problems, including the formula for a new balance of powers," Johann Marte, the director of Austria's ecumenical Pro Oriente association, told ENI. "[Conservative] voices, though still strong, appear to be on the defensive. The leading force is a religious one; but there's also a desire to develop the country economically and intellectually?a sense that theocracy cannot be the final stage."
Marte was speaking to ENI after accompanying the Catholic Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, on the five-day visit (February 17 to 21), one of the highest-ranking Christian visits to Iran since the 1980s Iran-Iraq War.
The highlight of the visit was, he said, a "very friendly" meeting on February 21 with Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, which had included a "sensational discussion" about Christian-Muslim ties. "The Ayatollah said he knew about the current dialogue and approved of it," said Marte, whose association was founded in 1964 to promote Roman Catholic contacts with Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches.
"He [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] talked about Jesus Christ and the prophet Mohammed, and smiled many times. Although we expected a good atmosphere in talks with other leaders, this show of friendliness came as a surprise."
Cardinal Schonborn and his delegation held talks with President Mohammed Khatami, attended a service in Tehran's Assyrian-Chaldean cathedral and met Armenian Apostolic Christians in the former capital, Esfahan.
Church sources said that Iranian leaders had agreed during the visit to support new textbooks for Muslim and Christian schoolchildren, as well as a joint history of both religions.
They added that students at Tehran's elite Imam Sadr University had "listened with great interest" to a lecture on Catholic social teaching given by the cardinal, who was invited to Iran by the Islamic Culture and Relations Organization.
Erich Leitenbeger, spokesman for the Vienna archdiocese, told ENI the visit was intended to promote a "dialogue of civilizations" urged by the United Nations for 2001, and to debate "problems of tradition and modernity."
He added that the Iranian authorities had accepted "all requests" by the 56-year-old cardinal, whose delegation had been allowed to travel unrestricted without Iranian observers.
"The cardinal had the impression that Iran's state and religious authorities are now genuinely interested in dialogue with other religions and cultures," Leitenberger said. "They voiced interest in the system operating in European countries, whereby state and religion are separate, but nevertheless co-operate."
Asked about Iran's 100,000-member Christian minority, whose priests and ministers were forced to leave after the 1979 Islamic revolution, Johann Marte said the Armenian Apostolic Church occupied a "historic position" and was "very self-confident," whereas the country's six other Christian denominations suffered discrimination in education and jobs.
However, he said, Iran's leaders appeared "very well informed" about differences between the Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant churches. Official media coverage of Cardinal Schonborn's visit hinted at possible concessions to religious minorities.
"Although Christians face many problems, they aren't persecuted and can leave the country whenever they wish," said Marte, a Roman Catholic who is also director of Austria's National Library. "It's important that their social, religious and liturgical life isn't forbidden or disturbed, in comparison with Saudi Arabia and other countries where Islam is [also] the leading ideology."
Cardinal Schonborn's tour, which was given front-page coverage in Iranian newspapers, follows President Khatami's 1999 visit to the Vatican, which has maintained diplomatic ties with Iran since the 1970s.
The Vatican's secretary for relations with states, Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, is expected to visit Tehran to discuss the restitution of church properties and the juridical position of the Roman Catholic minority.
Erich Leitenberger said Cardinal Schonborn's visit had been arranged after a decade of "successful collaboration" between Roman Catholic and Muslim theologians from Austria and Iran, including conferences hosted by Pro Oriente in 1996 and 1999.
He added that President Khatami had personally participated in contacts before his appointment as head of state, while he was director of Iran's National Library.
"Iran occupies a special place as the Islamic world's only Shi'ite country?the wider dialogue between Christians and Muslims won't be complete without its involvement," the Vienna archdiocese spokesman told ENI.
"The cardinal pointed out that Austria's Islamic community is fully recognized by the state, whereas Iran's Christian churches lack necessary rights. But he sensed religious minority rights were evolving there."
Church sources said Schonborn had faced "enthusiastic questions" during his Teheran university lecture on the Pope's 1998 encyclical letter Fides et Ratio.
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