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 in Rome for an afternoon march against the war and the planned expansion of a U.S. military base in the northeastern Italian city of Vicenza.
Bush was evidently eager to discuss topics other than Iraq. In response to a question at an afternoon press conference, the president acknowledged that he and the pope had discussed Iraq and the predicament of Christians there. But he said that the two leaders had also talked about U.S. support for programs to fight AIDS and malaria in Africa.
Bush also said that the pope, whom he described as a "very smart" man, had been following the debate in Washington over immigration reform, and that the two leaders had agreed on the importance of treating immigrants with "dignity."
After the Vatican, Bush met with the leaders of the Community of Sant'Egidio, a lay Catholic organization known for its work on conflict resolution and humanitarian aid in war-torn and underdeveloped countries, especially in Africa.
The meeting, which was originally scheduled to take place at the group's headquarters in Rome's Trastevere neighborhood, was held instead at the U.S. embassy because of safety concerns.
Bush praised Sant'Egidio as "one of the great faith-based organizations in the world" and an "international army of compassion," and said the U.S. shared with the group a "common commitment to help the poor, feed the hungry, and help eradicate disease." He specifically noted an administration proposal to increase funding for anti-AIDS programs in Africa.
Although Sant'Egidio is emphatically an anti-war organization, Iraq does not seem to have come up directly in the 50 minutes of roundtable meetings with the group's leaders, which Bush attended along with the U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Francis Rooney and Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte.
Sant'Egidio's founder, Andrea Riccardi, did tell the president that "war is the mother of all poverty." In response, Bush praised the organization's work mediating civil conflicts in Uganda, the Ivory Coast and the Sudanese region of Darfur, among other hot spots.
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More coverage on the visit is available from Zenit, Catholic News Service, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Associated Press, Reuters, and other news services.
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