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Pope Francis made a call for world peace and stressed the importance of combating terrorism and arms trafficking, as he received Tuesday Hassan Rowhani, the first Iranian leader to meet a pontiff in almost two decades.

"I thank you very much for this visit and I hope for peace," the pontiff told President Rowhani, before a 40-minute meeting behind closed doors also attended by Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif.

The Vatican said they discussed the nuclear deal that ended Tehran's isolation, and "noted the important role that Iran is called upon to fulfil, along with other countries in the region, to promote suitable political solutions to problems afflicting the Middle East, to counter the spread of terrorism and arms trafficking."

The Vatican added that the talks were "cordial" and - possibly offering coded criticism of human rights abuses by Iran's theocracy - said they touched upon Holy See efforts "for the promotion of the dignity of human beings and religious freedom."

At the end of the meeting, Rowhani thanked the pope and urged him to pray for him.

Following diplomatic custom, the two leaders exchanged gifts: Francis gave Rowhani a medallion of St Martin cutting his cloak to share it with a beggar as well as English and Arabic editions of his Laudato Si encyclical on the environment.

The Iranian president offered his host a miniature book and a handmade rug from the city of Qom.

The Vatican's visit was the highlight of Rowhani's Tuesday agenda, which also included participation in an Italy-Iran business forum, amid the signature of bilateral economic deals worth billions of dollars.

The last Iranian president to meet a pope was Mohammed Khatami, who was granted an audience by Saint John Paul II in 1999, and who returned to the Vatican in 2005 to attend the Polish-born pontiff's funeral.

On Wednesday, before leaving for Paris, Rowhani was due to be given a private tour of the Colosseum, an honour Italian authorities also granted to US President Barack Obama when he visited the Eternal City in 2014.

Writing on Twitter, the Iranian president said Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi would "travel to Iran in the coming months to boost economic ties." So far, no Western leader has visited Tehran since the signature of the nuclear deal, but several ministers have.

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