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Church officials from Austria have urged closer contacts with Iran after the first visit by a Roman Catholic leader in two decades to the Shi'ite Muslim country.

A leading ecumenist said Iran's state and religious authorities were showing a "new openness," and would consider extending the rights of local Christian minorities.

About 93 percent of Iran's 66 million citizens are Shi'ite Muslim, 5 percent Sunni Muslim, and 2 percent belong to other faiths. According to the World Churches Handbook, Iran has a range of small Christian churches, the biggest being the Armenian Orthodox Church, followed by the Roman Catholic Church, and other Protestant and Orthodox churches.

"Iranian leaders are genuinely seeking solutions to their problems, including the formula for a new balance of powers," Johann Marte, the director of Austria's ecumenical Pro Oriente association, told ENI. "[Conservative] voices, though still strong, appear to be on the defensive. The leading force is a religious one; but there's also a desire to develop the country economically and intellectually—a sense that theocracy cannot be the final stage."

Marte was speaking to ENI after accompanying the Catholic Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, on the five-day visit (February 17 to 21), one of the highest-ranking Christian visits to Iran since the 1980s Iran-Iraq War.

The highlight of the visit was, he said, a "very friendly" meeting on February 21 with Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, which had included a "sensational discussion" about Christian-Muslim ties. "The Ayatollah said he knew about the current dialogue and approved of it," said Marte, whose association was founded in 1964 to promote Roman Catholic contacts with Eastern ...

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