photo by Jeon Han, courtesy the Republic of Korea on Flickr
Pope Francis had a long and apparently congenial meeting this week with an Iranian delegation headed by the Islamic Republic’s president. The image both sides tried to present was one of moderation, tolerance and peace.
The 40-minute meeting, long by Vatican standards, was composed of “cordial discussions” of continuing turmoil in the Middle East and Iran’s hopes to participate more fully in global affairs in the wake of the nuclear deal that resulted in lifting economic sanctions. Both Iranian media and the Vatican press team emphasized the parties’ stated common desire for continuing good relations and mutual respect.
But when I see the pictures and read the accounts of this meeting, all I can see is an Argentine pope greeting the public face - though not the behind-the-scenes power - of the regime that arranged the bombing of a Buenos Aires Jewish center in 1994, killing 85 people.
The aftermath of the 1990s killing still lingers more than 20 years later. Last January, Buenos Aires prosecutor Alberto Nisman was found dead in his apartment the day before he planned to testify against high-ranking Argentine officials in connection with the 1994 bombing, along with the 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in which 29 people were killed. It had long been alleged that Iran was behind the community center bombing, an assumption confirmed just last month by Hector Timerman, formerly Argentina’s foreign minister, in a clandestinely recorded phone exchange. This revelation should have shocked nobody.
In 1994, Pope Francis was still Jorge Mario Bergoglio, serving as the auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires; he would become the head of the church in the Argentine capital just four years later. Iran’s supreme leader back then was Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who remains the country’s supreme leader today.
Francis is a popular pontiff, widely admired for his humble demeanor and apparent open-mindedness about how faith is expressed. While he has not completely overhauled his church’s position on social issues such as same-sex marriage or abortion, he has emphasized a nonjudgmental theological position. He has also spoken out on major global issues, notably the European refugee crisis and the war in Syria.
Not being Catholic, I don’t have any personal stake in who runs the Church or in the positions it takes. Of course, the institution Pope Francis heads is still one of the most influential in the world. Not only is the pope the head of a small, but wealthy, sovereign state; his cultural and political influence remains significant worldwide.
Like other recent popes, Francis seems intent on using that influence to make the world better for everyone inside and outside his faith. This effort creates a positive feedback effect by increasing respect for the pope and his church, among both Catholics and non-Catholics. As the pope’s respect and popularity grows, his influence increases further.
For me, at least, that respect is undermined by the reception Francis afforded the Iranian delegation and by the photo ops he provided.
Although the recent meeting was the first between a pope and an Iranian head of state since 1999, diplomatic relations between the states have remained cordial, The Wall Street Journal recently observed. This despite the fact that Christians in Iran, while technically a recognized minority, face significant legal limitations and have been victims of imprisonment and other religious persecution in recent years. This, too, despite Pope Francis’ strong stance against the death penalty, of which Iran is a leading practitioner. And, of course, this despite Iran’s role in the very instability and violence that the pope has repeatedly condemned.
The Tehran regime has not changed since the 1990s. It still takes hostages and promotes violence and terror. Syrian President Bashar Assad would not have been in the business of dropping barrel bombs and deploying chemical weapons against civilians without Iranian support. Assad in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon remain Iran’s two biggest clients.
Maybe the pope prefers to turn the other cheek, overlooking or forgetting how Iran brought terror to his own hometown. A lot of other people, including me, have no intention of doing so.