Iran General NewsPope avoids Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Pope avoids Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

- Benedict XVI has cancelled meetings with seven world leaders to avoid an encounter with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran.

By Malcolm Moore in Rome

ImageBenedict XVI has cancelled meetings with seven world leaders to avoid an encounter with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran.

Mr Ahmadinejad is one of 40 heads of state arriving in Rome on Tuesday for a vital United Nations summit on the world’s food crisis.

Mr Ahmadinejad was keen to meet Benedict XVI, after writing to him two years ago on the subject of spirituality and the need for dialogue between Islam and Christianity.

Relations between Iran and the Holy See are warming, and Mr Ahmadinejad said the Vatican was a “positive force for justice and peace” in April after meeting with the new nuncio to Iran, Archbishop Jean-Paul Gobel. Benedict is also thought to have the support of several leading Shia clerics, including Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Iraq.

A delegation of eight Iranians from the Islamic Culture and Relations Organisation, including Mahdi Mostafavi, one of Mr Ahmadinejad’s inner circle, came to Rome for a two-day meeting at the end of April and agreed religion should be a force for peace.

However, the Pope was keen to avoid the glare of publicity that would have been triggered by a one-to-one meeting with Mr Ahmadinejad.

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil, President Cristina Kirchner of Argentina, President Evo Morales of Bolivia and several African leaders also asked for a papal meeting.

The Vatican briefly considered a single audience for all the heads of state.

However, it eventually decided to refuse all the requests in order to avoid any potential embarrassment. It did not comment further on the decision.

Gholam-Hossein Elham, the Iranian spokesman, confirmed that the Vatican had refused all meetings and added that Iran had never formally requested a meeting. He said Mr Ahmadinejad would not meet Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, but would meet with several Italian business leaders.

Italy has taken a strong stance against Iran, and repeated over the weekend that it would not have bilateral talks with anyone “who says that Israel should be wiped off the face of the earth”.

However, trade between the two countries added up to Eu5.7 billion last year, making Italy the largest European trade partner for Iran.

The Vatican has not shied away from meeting controversial dictators in the past. In April 2005, Robert Mugabe took part in the funeral for John Paul II, and shook Prince Charle’s hand. In 1987, John Paul II met Augusto Pinochet in Santiago, while Fidel Castro saw the pope in 1996 at a previous FAO food summit.

The Italian Foreign Ministry and the Embassy of Zimbabwe both refused to comment yesterday on whether Mr Mugabe would repeat his 2005 trip to Rome.

The centre of Rome has been locked down for the duration of the summit.

Several main thoroughfares will be closed, bomb squads have swept the sewers and extra security has been called in.

President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, Yasuo Fukuda of Japan and Jose Luis Zapatero, the Spanish prime minister, are also expected at the summit.

Gordon Brown has said he is unable to attend, however.

The summit aims to find a global consensus to the crisis of rising food prices. The cost of basic foodstuffs has rocketed in the past three years, with wheat prices rising by 130 per cent in the first three months of this year alone.

The rises have come as farmers in the third world relocate to cities or turn to growing crops for biofuel. Severe weather conditions have also crippled many countries and the FAO has put together a map of 22 countries, including Eritrea, Haiti and Liberia, which are on the verge of catastrophe.

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