Pope Francis met Tuesday with Iran's President Hassan Rouhani, the latest sign of Iran's improving ties in the West as years of sanctions fall away.
The two said they discussed the problems in the region, a reference to the wars in Iraq and Syria. The pope has made pleas for peace in both conflicts, while Iran is deeply involved in supporting the embattled governments in both countries.
This was the first meeting between a pope and an Iranian head of state since 1999, which was the last time an Iranian leader toured Europe. Iran was increasingly sanctioned by the West over its nuclear program, but many of those restrictions fell away on Jan. 16 under the terms of the nuclear deal Iran signed last year with six world powers.
NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports:
The meeting lasted 40 minutes — long by Vatican standards — and a Holy See statement described it as cordial.
It said the pope and Rouhani spoke of their common spiritual values and the good relations between the Holy See and Iran.
They discussed the deal Tehran reached with world powers to limit its nuclear activities in exchange for an end to economic sanctions.
And the statement stressed what it called the relevant role Iran is called on to play to promote suitable political solutions to the problems afflicting the Middle East, to counter the spread of terrorism and arms trafficking.
As he left, Rouhani borrowed from the pope one of his signature remarks, asking him, "Please pray for me."
Francis thanked him for the visit and said, "I hope for peace."
The Vatican has had diplomatic ties with Tehran from before the 1979 Islamic revolution. They've grown even stronger under Francis, who is keen on conflict resolution and mediation.
Rouhani's European trip will also include a visit to France and a batch of commercial deals, now that Iran has access to tens of billions of dollars that were frozen under the sanctions. Most of that money is owed to Iran for oil sales to Asian countries in recent years.
"Iran is the safest, the most stable country in the entire region," Rouhani told Italian and Iranian business leaders before meeting the pope on Tuesday. "Now we have created the conditions for investment and for the transfer of know-how."
A tweet on Rouhani's official Twitter account said Iran signed 14 economic and cooperation agreements in Italy and that a "new chapter in economic ties & scientific-cultural exchange has begun."