Iranian Leader Tweets Christmas Greeting to Pope

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Christmas Day tweeted a photograph of him with Christians, referring to Christmas as a "special day." (@HassanRouhani/Twitter)

Iran's top leaders sent Christmas greetings on social media today, reaching out via unprecedented tweets from the Islamic republic - including one message directed at Pope Francis.

"Felicitations to @Pontifex on birthday of Christ, Prophet of love, mercy & friendship," Iranian President Hassan Rouhani tweeted, referring to the Pope's Twitter account, " @Pontifex."

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has final word in state matters, praised Jesus Christ in a series of tweets and a Facebook post. Adherents of Islam, Iran's official state religion, consider Jesus Christ a prophet.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, wished his Twitter followers a "Merry Christmas" in his own message Tuesday.

The Iranian leaders' comments follow a similar interfaith outreach around the time of the Jewish New Year, in September, when Rouhani used Twitter to "wish all Jews, especially Iranian Jews, a blessed Rosh Hashanah."

The tweets, dismissed by critics of the Iranian regime as a less-than-genuine public relations move, turned heads because of longstanding criticism over the Iranian government's treatment of religious minorities within its borders. The Iranian state follows a hard-line brand of Shia Islam.

Religious minorities in Iran, which include Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, Sunni Muslims and Baha'i, face restrictions in education, employment, politics, the government and military, according to Freedom House, a U.S.-based organization that researches human rights and political freedoms. The Baha'i, believed to number more than 300,000 in Iran, "enjoy virtually no rights" and "are banned from practicing their faith," the organization said.

Christians make up a tiny percentage of Iran's population of 80 million.

Since he assumed office in August, Rouhani has put a friendly face on engagement with the West, even exchanging tweets with U.S. President Barack Obama.

Today, he shared a photograph of himself spending time "on this special day" with Christians.

So far, Pope Francis has not tweeted back.