Pope breaks silence on protests, condemns executions

Pope breaks silence on protests, condemns executions

Pope Francis delivers his annual New Year’s address. (Photo: Twitter @VaticanNews)

Pope Francis has broken his silence on the protests in Iran, specifically referring to the “recent demonstrations demanding greater respect for the dignity of women” as part of his general condemnation of the death penalty.

Until yesterday, the Pope had not made a public comment on the protests, which began in September after the death in custody of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, who had been arrested for wearing her headscarf “improperly”.

In his Christmas address two weeks ago, the Pope name-checked Iran, alongside Myanmar, in calling for “reconciliation” and “an end to all bloodshed”. 

But not until yesterday had he made specific mention of the protests, in which at least 500 people have been killed at the hands of security forces, including 70 children, and more than 19,000 arrested, including an increasing number sentenced to death. The first executions were carried out last month.

“The right to life is … threatened in those places where the death penalty continues to be imposed, as is the case in these days in Iran, following the recent demonstrations demanding greater respect for the dignity of women,” the Pope said during his annual New Year’s address to diplomats. 

“The death penalty cannot be employed for a purported State justice, since it does not constitute a deterrent nor render justice to victims, but only fuels the thirst for vengeance. I appeal, then, for an end to the death penalty, which is always inadmissible since it attacks the inviolability and the dignity of the person, in the legislation of all the countries of the world. We cannot overlook the fact that, up until his or her very last moment, a person can repent and change.”

The Pope also referenced Iran in earlier comments regarding the “raised” nuclear threat, stating that he hoped a “concrete solution” could be reached on the Iran nuclear deal, “for the sake of ensuring a more secure future”.

Pope Francis’ message will have been welcomed by the many activists who have been calling on him to speak out on behalf of protesters. But there will also be some who feel it has come too late, and others – those who have called for an end to all diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic – who will object to his support for the nuclear deal.

The Pope’s silence on Iran to date was not a total shock, the Vatican typically preferring quiet diplomacy over public criticism.

His message will also no doubt have come as an unpleasant surprise to the president of the Islamic Republic, Ebrahim Raisi, who, as in years gone by, sent a personal message of congratulations to Pope Francis on the occasion of Christmas. 

The Catholic presence in Iran is meagre – comprising of just two Assyrian archdioceses, which between them have one bishop and four priests; an Armenian diocese, which has just one bishop; and a Roman Catholic archdiocese, whose new archbishop, Dominique Mathieu, appointed by Pope Francis, was initially denied a visa.

Yet despite its dwindling presence in Iran, the Vatican still possesses diplomatic clout and has been instrumental in the past in advocating for the release of imprisoned Christians including Mehdi Dibaj, who had been sentenced to death for apostasy and was killed shortly after his release, and Maryam Rostampour and Marziyeh Amirizadeh, who spent nearly nine months in Tehran’s Evin Prison.