Never in the 20 years since Iran's Islamic Revolution sparked Muslim radicalism worldwide has an Iranian president been welcomed in Western Europe.
But this week, President Mohamad Khatami visited Italy in a historic meeting between the Islamic world and largely Christian Europe.
Speaking outside Florence at an ancient sacred building whose walls whisper messages of Christian origins and the Renaissance, Mr. Khatami asked for a dialogue between the two "civilizations."
His three-day visit, although largely symbolic, nonetheless may be an attempt to weaken US economic sanctions imposed against Iran for allegedly being a "sponsor of terrorism."
The visit also could win points for Khatami back home against powerful conservative clerics who have defied his moves to allow free speech and widen international contacts since his 1997 election.
In a 35-minute talk entitled "A Message for Europe," Khatami, a moderate cleric, introduced the West to his Islamic origins.
"All the divine religions are not quintessentially different. The differences arise from religious laws and codes of conduct that govern the social and judicial life of human beings," he told an audience of Italian officials, ambassadors, professors, and students at the European University Institute.
He said a dialogue between Muslim countries and Christian countries "requires listening to and hearing from other civilizations and cultures, and the importance of listening to others is by no means less than talking to others. It may be in fact more important.
"Islam and Europe must get to know one another better, and then move on to improve their political, economic, and cultural relations. Our futures are inseparable because our pasts have been inseparable," Khatami said. "Iran is the meeting point of the Eastern and Western cultures, just as man is the meeting point of the soul's East and the reason's West."
He did not accept questions, however, after stressing the need for dialogue among civilizations. Although some audience members voiced disappointment, others thought his message of communication from a philosophical point of view was amazingly refreshing in modern-day politics.
"It was an opening discussion about spirituality and Islam culture and the way in which the East sees the West," Nadia Hashmi, third-year doctoral researcher from London said. "Twenty years ago this was unimaginable. Given the nature of his visit, I do not think it would have been right to start a debate about human rights in Iran and criticize from our Western point of view. This should be seen as a step forward for future relations with that part of the world."
A handful of protesters on hand to denounce the current Iranian regime disagreed.
It was no coincidence that Khatami visited the European University Institute and spoke in a building rich with scholastic history, the ancient Badia Fiesolana. Renowned artists, architects, popes, and intellectuals of the Renaissance contributed to the Badia on the Tuscan hills outside Florence.
"I believe that the European University Institute is the ideal venue for this historic address," said Dr. Patrick Masterson, principal of the institute, in introducing Khatami at the Badia Fiesolana. "It is a truly international center of comparative interdisciplinary research in the human sciences bringing together tolerant, creative, intellectual interaction."
In 1976, the European Community transformed the Badia Fiesolana and surrounding historic buildings into an elite academic training center.
Although the origins of the Badia Fiesolana are lost in legend, it has always been a significant place for "excellent and lettered men."
At the core of this legend is St. Romulus, the evangelizer of the pagan town of Fiesole and the founder of the first Christian Oratory. It is alleged that St. Romulus suffered martyrdom, along with other saints and witnesses to the new faith. Their remains were thrown into a well and the Badia Fiesolana was constructed on this spot. By 1439, it was home to priests and scholars who kept many of the most important texts of classical and Christian culture.
KHATAMI recognized Italy for its role in the Renaissance, which he said revitalized "religion by giving it a new language and fresh ideas."
"The Renaissance defined the man of religion not as someone who would turn his back on the world but as somebody who would face the world," he said. Unfortunately, according to Khatami, somewhere during the Renaissance, the world was transformed into violent conquest and subjugation.
Khatami wrapped up his trip to Italy yesterday with a private meeting with Pope John Paul II. The Vatican termed it a warm encounter based on "a spirit of dialogue between Muslims and Christians."