Pope writes Ahmadinejad of Catholics' plight

Pope Benedict XVI has told Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of the discrimination and violence Catholics suffer in the Middle East and said he hopes relations between the local Catholic Church and authorities can improve.

The Vatican released the text of a letter Benedict wrote to Ahmadinejad after receiving a letter from the Iranian leader last month. Ahmadinejad had thanked the pontiff for opposing a Florida pastor's threat to burn the Quran on the Sept. 11 anniversary.

In his letter, dated Nov. 3 but released only Thursday, Benedict noted that a recent meeting of Mideast bishops had decried the discrimination many Catholics face in the region. He said he hoped a bilateral commission would help address the legal status of the Catholic Church in Iran.

"In some countries these communities face difficult circumstances, discrimination and even violence and they lack the freedom to live and publicly profess their faith," Benedict said, without citing Iran by name.

He said Catholics in the country try to contribute to the common good.

The letter was hand-delivered Tuesday to Ahmadinejad by Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, who heads the Vatican's office for interreligious dialogue and was visiting Tehran this week.

Human rights reports and Western governments say Christians in Iran, like other minorities including Jews and Zoroastrians, suffer arrests as well as discrimination by being kept out of some jobs. The United States has labeled Iran a country of particular concern for abuse of religious worshippers.

In some countries, like Saudi Arabia, Catholics can only pray in private. By contrast, Iran does allow churches and priests. They are few and far between, however: Iranian church officials told the recent Vatican Mideast meeting that there were only four bishops, 14 priests and 21 nuns in Iran to preach to the country's estimated 19,000 Catholics.

Benedict has previously urged Iran to let Catholics have the priests and churches they need to freely practice their faith in the country.

In his letter Thursday, Benedict said he hoped that the "cordial" relations between the Holy See and Iran will progress as well as relations on the ground between the local church and local authorities.

Iran and the Holy See have had diplomatic relations for more than 50 years.