Iran reaches out to Pope John Paul II to avoid religious war

TEHRAN, Oct 4 (AFP) -

An initiative by President Mohammad Khatami to telephone Pope John Paul II underscored Iran's strong desire to ensure the terrorism crisis does not degenerate into a clash between Christianity and Islam, analysts said Thursday.

"We hope that in the near future, the world will no longer know war and poverty, but peace and goodness," Khatami said during the Wednesday night conversation, which marked the first time a leader of the Islamic republic has telephoned a pontiff.

Khatami, himself a mid-ranking Islamic cleric, once again condemned the September 11 "massacres" in the United States, adding they demonstrated "the decline in spirituality and morality" in the world, local media reported.

Khatami -- the leading force behind 2001 being declared by the United Nations as the year of "Dialogue among Civilizations " -- also said there was a need for "collaboration between Islam and Christianity to save humans and establish a real peace in the world."

Pope John Paul, cited by Iranian television, answered that: "Cooperation is needed between the different religions, notably Christians and Muslims."

This kind of dialogue between the pope and Muslim leaders like Khatami is "very important," Bishop Ramsi Gramoi of Iran's 15,000-strong Chaldean Christian community told AFP.

"We even hope it can prevent war," he said. "Sincere discussions between Christians and Muslims can have good consequences. The two religions together group almost half of humanity."

Khatami has issued similar messages to his fellow Muslims. "Alas, such a drama has served the pretext of those who aim to profit from confrontation between Islamic and Western civilizations," he told the Organization of Islamic Conference on September 19, referring to the hijacked airliner attacks on New York and Washington.

"Khatami and John Paul are people who respect each other, they have met before and they understand each other," said a Western diplomat recalling three senior Catholic officials have visited Iran over the past few months.

"During important world crises, we often see that Islamic Iran and the Vatican have very similar positions," said Iranian political analyst Iradj Rachti.

"During the (1991) Gulf War ... they were both at the same time against the occupation of Kuwait, but also against war, and tried to mediate to prevent it," he said.

Around 99 percent of Iran's 65 million people are Muslim, but it also counts around 250,000 Christians, 30,000 Jews and 30,000 Zoroastrians.