Pope raises religious freedom with Iranian FM

Pope John Paul II raised the issue of religious and cultural freedom during talks Thursday with Iran's Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi marking the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Tehran.

Kharazi's visit comes a week before parliamentary elections that many supporters of reformist President Mohammad Khatami plan to boycott citing restrictions on political freedoms.

The pope said the Minister's presence in the Vatican "is a sign of cooperation that, for more than 50 years now, has marked the official relations between the Holy See and your country".

He said he was confident the spirit of collaboration would "grow ever stonger" as they addressed areas of mutual concern.

"Not least in this regard is the ongoing commitment to safeguard the inalienable rights and dignity of the human person, especially in efforts aimed at promoting greater understanding among peoples of different religious, cultural and ethnic backgrounds."

Kharazi also had discussions with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano after a brief audience with the pope.

Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro Valls said the officials discussed the situation of the Catholic Church in the Islamic republic dominated by ruling conservatives, "dwelling on the most important questions regarding its life and its activities".

They also discussed "cooperation between the Holy See and Iran in the area of inter-religious dialogue, promotion of peace and other international questions on which there is a convergence of views," the spokesman said.