VATICAN CITY Pope Francis met Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in the Vatican on Tuesday and urged Tehran to work with other Middle East states to promote peace and stop the spread of terrorism and arms trafficking in the region.
Shi'ite Muslim Iran is the strongest ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while Western countries back his mainly Sunni Muslim opponents in the five-year-old civil war.
Many Western nations also accuse Iran of funding various militant groups which they deem to be terrorist organisations.
Despite being an Islamic republic, Iran has good relations with the Holy See and the Vatican has been seeking to use its influence with Teheran to help bring peace to the Middle East.
A Vatican statement spoke of the "important role Iran is called on to play, along with other countries in the region, to promote adequate political solutions to the problems that afflict the Middle East, combating the spread of terrorism and arms trafficking".
"I thank you for your visit and I hope for peace," Francis told the Iranian leader at the end of a 40-minute meeting in the pope's private study in the Vatican's Apostolic Palace.
Rouhani, who wore a white turban and black robe, asked the pope to "pray for me". He then held separate talks with top Vatican diplomats.
Rouhani is on a four-day trip to Italy and France and wants to rebuild Iran's ties with the West after financial sanctions on Tehran were rolled back some two weeks ago in the wake of its nuclear accord with world powers last year.
It was the first state visit by an Iranian president to the Vatican since 1999, although President Mohammad Khatami was among the many world leaders who attended the funeral of Pope John Paul in 2005.
Pope Francis has several times praised last year's deal that aims to curtail Tehran's atomic ambitions. He told the U.N. General Assembly last September it was "proof of the potential of political good will" in the international community.
(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Gareth Jones)
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