Pope Francis received at the Vatican Thursday the President of Tunisia, Mohamed Moncef Marzouki.
“During the cordial discussions, various themes of common interest were reviewed, such as the promotion of peace, interreligious dialogue and human rights, with particular reference to the defense of freedom of conscience and religious freedom, as well as the refusal of every form of extremism or violence,” the Vatican said in a statement.
“The Parties noted the commitment of the Catholic Church in social issues and the fields of health and education, in the service of all Tunisian citizens, especially the poorest and most in need,” it added.
The Vatican also said “various questions of an international and regional nature were examined, paying special attention to the situation in the Mediterranean Basin.”
During the meeting, which lasted about 20 minutes, the Tunisian president gave the Pope a silver dove with an olive branch in its beak; the Pope gave him a medallion with an angel in bas-relief.
“This dove is the symbol of peace and, for a man of peace, we could not have found anything better,” Marzouki said. “A nice symbol,” Pope Francis replied in gratitude.
The so-called Arab Spring, which led to the toppling of a number of governments in the region, began in Tunisia after Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year old street vendor, set himself on fire in December 2010 in protest at the confiscation of his wares and the humiliation inflicted on him by a municipal official. The violence that followed led to longtime autocractic President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali stepping down on 14 January 2011, after 23 years in power.
Marzouki, a veteran human rights activist, was elected president in 2011 and has since overseen a return to relative stability in the country and resisted the implementation of sharia law by hardline Islamists.
After meeting the Pope, Marzouki subsequently met Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, accompanied by Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, Secretary for Relations with States.