Former Iranian president Muhammad Khatami called for greater understanding and communication between the Muslim world and the West as he received a doctorate of law from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland on Tuesday.
The decision to honor the reformist politician and cleric angered some student groups and human rights activists, who accuse him of being complicit in the imprisonment and torture of thousands of dissidents.
Khatami was president of the theocratic state for eight years until 2005 and is the first senior Iranian to visit Britain since the fall of the Shah in the 1979 Islamic revolution.
"Our world is being threatened by all kinds of conflicts," including religious ones, he told an audience of about 1,000. "There are calls for religious wars today, but we must remember that even if we don't share religion with you, we are created the same way as you."
"One can live inside religious, geographical and political borders but extend love profusely," he said during a 30-minute address delivered in Farsi. "Friendship across borders will save the world."
About a dozen protesters gathered outside Younger Hall, where university Principal Brian Lang presented the former president with his degree amid pomp and ceremony. Sir Menzies Campbell, leader of Britain's opposition Liberal Democrat Party and chancellor of St. Andrews, had planned to confer the degree but attended a debate in parliament in London on the war in Iraq.
"It is disgusting that St. Andrews university is conferring an honor on this man, he is responsible for more than 1,300 deaths during his presidency," said Maryam Namazie, of the Iranian Women's Liberation group, who fled the country in 1980. "This regime was responsible for the oppression of people that I knew and loved."
Two Iranian refugees asked London's Metropolitan Police to arrest Khatami under legislation barring committing, condoning or colluding with acts of torture, said activist Peter Tatchell.
Safa Einollahi, 29, and Ali Ebrahimi, 34, say they were unjustly imprisoned and tortured while Khatami was in office and accused him of doing nothing to stop the abuse, Tatchell said.
Police said they had received a complaint alleging torture in Iran but "we consider there is insufficient grounds to make an arrest and there is not sufficient basis for criminal investigation."
The university defended its decision to invite Khatami, citing his moderate views and willingness to talk with the West as reason to engage with him. The students' association has backed that decision.
"What we can offer is acknowledgment of a courageous stand against insularity and congratulations on real and persistent efforts to reach out and engage with nations of the West," said history professor Michael Bentley, speaking after the former president received his honorary degree.
The Vatican, whose relations with the Muslim world have been strained recently, also sent a message of support, saying intercultural and inter-religious dialogue were crucial.
The visit comes as Britain and the United States press for sanctions against Iran, under new President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for refusing to halt its uranium enrichment program, which they and their allies suspect is aimed at building nuclear bombs.
Khatami also opened the university's new Institute of Iranian Studies and said he hoped it would help improve understanding between Britain and Iran.
The center will house 12,000 books donated by Sadegh Kharazi, Iran's former ambassador to France. The collection of Iranian texts, the largest of its kind in Europe, is estimated to be worth more than 100,000 ($190,000).
St. Andrews is Scotland's oldest university and was founded in 1413. Previous recipients of honorary degrees include film star Michael Douglas, who was awarded one earlier this year.
Its most famous recent student was Prince William, second in line to the British throne, who graduated with honors in geography in 2005.