Iranian Leaders Split on Pope's Death

Iran's leaders showed sharply different reactions to the death of Pope John Paul II (search), with liberal President Mohammad Khatami (search) personally attending the pope's funeral Friday as a gesture of respect while the Islamic Republic's supreme leader remaining silent and not even sending a cable of condolence.

Iran's powerful former president Hashemi Rafsanjani (search) also sent conflicting signals, saying John Paul's vocal opposition to the U.S. invasion to Iraq was valuable, but that it was not strong enough to discredit the U.S. administration.

Friday's funeral at St. Peter's Square (search) brought the biggest array of world leaders in history to bid farewell to the pope at a service drawing millions to Rome for one of the largest religious gatherings of modern times.

While Khatami has expressed deep sorrow, saying the "pope was a devotee of peace, justice and righteousness," Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (search) has remained silent, apparently on purpose.

Khamenei's snub is reportedly prompted by the wide belief in Iran that the pope didn't issue a formal message of condolence when the founder of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (search), died in 1989. Khomeini is often described by Iran's state-run media as "leader of the world's Muslims."

"The pope didn't issue a message of condolence when the late imam (Khomeini) died. So, there was no reason for Ayatollah Khamenei to issue a cable of condolence for the pope's death," said Hamid Reza Taraqi, a leader of the hard-line Islamic Coalition Society.

However, John Paul did comment on Khomeini's death during a 1989 visit to Finland, saying: "It is necessary to state with great respect and with deep reflection his impact on his country and a considerable part of the world."

In his Friday prayer sermons, Rafsanjani praised John Paul for his opposition to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, but said the late pope fell short of full condemnation.

"They (the Vatican) should shout at America loudly. They should tell the Americans that the crimes they commit are discrediting Jesus because they are getting the vote of the American people in the name of Jesus and the church," Rafsanjani told thousands of worshippers.

"Popes cannot preach the teachings of Jesus and ignore the crimes committed by the U.S. throughout the world."

Rafsanjani was referring to America's sway on international bodies, such as the United Nations Security Council, to block resolutions critical of Israel, while placing pressure on Third World countries. He did not elaborate.

The pope's appeals for Christians and Muslims to seek common grounds rather than confrontation and encouragement to dialogue among civilizations is similar to policies pursued by Khatami.

Rifts between the West and Islam will likely influence how the next pope measures his priorities. Relations with Islam — and who is best equipped to handle the delicate questions — is emerging as one of the factors that is expected to shape the decision of the cardinals when they gather this month to pick the 265th pontiff.