President Bush met Pope Benedict XVI for the first time on Saturday in a half-hour closed-door meeting that that touched on the plight of Christians in war-torn Iraq and efforts to combat AIDS in Africa.

Bush's visit to Rome came the day after his attendance at a G-8 summit in Germany, which he told the pope was a "very successful meeting."

Meeting inside the pope's private library, Bush said summit participants — the heads of the worlds richest nations and Russia — had pledged $60 billion to fight disease in Africa.

After reporters left the room, Benedict and Bush remained together for 35 minutes in private. That meeting was followed by one of similar length between the president and Vatican Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone.

According to a Vatican statement released afterwards, the "cordial discussions" on international politics focused on Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, with an emphasis on "the worrisome situation in Iraq and … the critical conditions in which Christian communities find themselves."

Those words echoed Benedict's Easter message two months ago, in which he declared that "nothing positive comes out of Iraq, torn apart by continual slaughter as the civil population flees."

Last Sunday, a Roman Catholic priest and three deacons were killed in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.

Critics of the war had hoped that today's meeting would showcase their objections to the Bush administration's Iraq policy. On the eve of Bush's visit to Rome, several American Catholic groups issued an open appeal to the president to "heed the Holy Father's unequivocal words about the moral and humanitarian crisis in Iraq."

While the president and the pope were meeting, tens of thousands of protesters were arriving ...

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