Sunday June 10 2007
Pope Shares Iraq Concerns in Meeting With Bush
President Bush took a close look at his gifts, an etching and a medallion, from Pope Benedict XVI on Saturday (Pool photo by Plinio Lebri).
By SHERYL GAY STOLBERG and IAN FISHER
ROME, June 9 President Bush and Pope Benedict XVI, both religious conservatives, met for the first time on Saturday in the papal palace at the Vatican, where the pontiff privately expressed his concerns to the president about “the worrying situation in Iraq,” especially the treatment of minority Christians there.
President Bush met Pope Benedict XVI today at the Vatican for the first time (L'Osservatore Romano via Associated Press)
Mr. Bush, speaking to reporters after having lunch with Prime Minister Romano Prodi, conceded that the pope had raised those concerns. He pronounced himself “in awe” of Benedict and said he felt he had been “talking to a very smart, loving man.”
The president said he reminded the pope of America’s commitment to spend more on AIDS in Africa and American attempts to “feed the hungry.” And the two talked about immigration; the pontiff is apparently watching the immigration legislation debate in the United States with great interest. But Iraq loomed large over their hourlong session in the grand and elegant private papal library, with its plush regal chairs, ceiling frescoes and a crucifix by Giotto.
Many Italians have been against the war, and Italy pulled the last of its troops out of Iraq last year. On Saturday, tens of thousands of protesters including antiwar demonstrators turned out for anti-Bush marches, some of which turned violent in the early evening. Protesters in Rome’s downtown historic district lobbed beer bottles and rocks that bounced off the plastic shields of the riot police officers, who fired at least one round of tear gas to break up the demonstration.
Benedict, like Pope John Paul II before him, has expressed deep concerns not only about Christians in Iraq, as the president suggested, but also about violence there and the war more broadly. When he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, before he became pope, he made a much-quoted remark dismissing the idea of Iraq as a “just war” a topic Mr. Bush said did not come up on Saturday.
“We didn’t talk about ‘just war,’ ” the president said, addressing reporters in a courtyard of the Chigi Palace, the seat of the Italian government, with Prime Minister Prodi by his side. “He did express deep concerns about the Christians inside Iraq, that he was concerned that the society that was evolving would not tolerate the Christian religion. And I assured him we’re working hard to make sure that people lived up to the Constitution, the modern Constitution voted on by the people that would honor people from different walks of life and different attitudes.”
The Vatican described the session as “cordial,” and the pope apparently did not go as far as his predecessor, who in 2004 urged Mr. Bush to end the “grave unrest” in Iraq.
The Vatican did not release the exact substance of the meeting. A church statement, however, said that both the pope and his secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who also met Mr. Bush, raised “Israeli-Palestinian questions, Lebanon, the worrying situation in Iraq and the critical conditions in which the Christian community finds itself.”
Until Saturday, talk of Iraq had been largely missing from Mr. Bush’s eight-day, six-country European tour. There was little talk of it in Prague, where Mr. Bush emphasized his freedom agenda, or in Heiligendamm, Germany, where leaders of the Group of 8 industrialized nations turned their attention to climate change and aid to poor nations, or in Poland, where missile defense was the central issue.
But here in Italy, where Mr. Bush’s policies on Iraq and the global war on terrorism arouse intense passions, he found himself once again in the war’s shadow not only in Vatican City, but also in the streets of downtown Rome, which were virtually shut down by a heavy police presence anticipating the protests.
The protesters a mix of antiglobalists, members from left wing and radical groups and other citizens wound their way down Rome’s Via Cavour from Piazza Della Repubblica and ended at Piazza Navona. One demonstrator, Michela Chimetto, a 37-year-old office assistant who was in town from Vicenza, where the United States has faced sharp protests in the past about plans to expand a military base, pronounced Mr. Bush “the worst president the United States ever had.”
The protest did not turn violent until the evening, when Mr. Bush was miles away, at the United States ambassador’s residence on the other side of downtown. There did not appear to be any injuries, and the protest ended around 8:30 p.m..
The Italian authorities had earlier been so concerned about Mr. Bush’s safety that the White House canceled plans for him to visit the basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, one of the oldest churches in Rome.
The church’s location, in a square surrounded by narrow streets, left Italian officials fearing that Mr. Bush’s motorcade could wind up surrounded. The president was to meet with a human rights advocacy organization there; the session was held instead at the American Embassy for “logistical reasons,” the White House said.
Mr. Bush arrived in Italy at a moment of particular strain between the nations: In Milan, a trial is under way for 26 Americans, nearly all operatives for the Central Intelligence Agency, and Italian intelligence officials or operatives charged with kidnapping a radical Muslim imam in Italy in 2003. It is the first trial involving the contentious American policy of “extraordinary rendition,” in which terrorism suspects are abducted and then interrogated in other countries, some of which permit torture.
Mr. Prodi said he and Mr. Bush did not discuss the trial, and he dismissed the idea that it had created any tension. “Italy, of course, is a democratic country,” Mr. Prodi said. “We have very clear-cut rules that we follow and we, therefore, enforce our rules. And I am confident that there is no conflict here, in terms of our friendship and our cooperation with the United States.”
Mr. Bush was famously close with Italy’s former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, now the opposition leader (whom he met with privately) a decision that provoked one Italian reporter to ask the president, who was standing next to Mr. Prodi at the time, which prime minister’s company he preferred.
“I mentioned this to Romano, and his attitude was, ‘I don’t blame you,’ ” the president replied, adding, “One shouldn’t read anything into it other than, we made some decisions together, we’ve known each other for a while.”
At the Vatican, the portion of Mr. Bush’s hourlong meeting with Benedict that was open to reporters seemed entirely friendly and relaxed. As is customary, the president and the pope traded gifts. The pope presented the president with an etching of St. Peter’s Square from the 17th century and a gold papal medallion. The president gave the pope a white walking stick made by a former homeless man turned artist from Texas and covered with the 10 Commandments.
The pope double-checked with the president what was written on the stick.
“The 10 Commandments, sir,” the president said. He did not use the normal honorific of “Your Holiness,” an omission that later created a stir in the Italian news media. At the news conference with Mr. Prodi, Mr. Bush pointedly changed how he referred to Benedict, saying he would “be glad to share some of the private conversation with His Holy Father.”
But earlier in the day, Mr. Bush did not appear eager to share his private conversations with the pope with reporters who were gathered in the same room.
At one point during their talks about the Group of 8 meeting, the pope asked Mr. Bush whether “the dialogue with Putin was good,” a reference to his meeting with the Russian president, who opposes an American plan to install an antimissile system in Eastern Europe.
Mr. Bush, eyeing the reporters and photographers who, a few feet away, were straining to hear any news, said: “Um, I’ll tell you in a minute.”