President Bush Discusses Iraq, AIDS with Pope

President Bush met Pope Benedict XVI for the first time Saturday in Rome. Reporters were not allowed in the Pope's private library during the meeting, but the president afterward acknowledged that the Pope expressed concerns about the treatment of Christians in Iraq.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jacki Lyden. Debbie Elliott's on assignment.

President Bush is in Italy today where he had his first meeting with Pope Benedict XVI. They spoke for about half an hour at the Vatican. The meeting was closed. The pope seemed to have refrained from strongly criticizing Mr. Bush about the war in Iraq. The president also met with Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi.

NPR's Don Gonyea reports from Rome.

DON GONYEA: President Bush has always described meetings at the Vatican as something special even for a person who's used to VIP treatment at palaces and presidential mansions around the world. Benedict XVI greeted him in the pope's private library. Mr. Bush's greeting was casual.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Oh, it's good to be with you, sir.

Pope BENEDICT XVI: Thank you. (unintelligible)

GONYEA: This was the only portion of the meeting that was open to the press. The Vatican allowed just a very small pool of reporters into the room. They were escorted in and then out a minute later. But in that time, the pontiff and the president could be overheard chatting about Mr. Bush's just concluded trip to the G-8 summit.

There were no formal statements in front of cameras. But later in the day, President Bush described his impressions of the pope, calling him, quote, "a very smart, loving man."

President BUSH: And I was in awe. And it was a moving experience for me.

GONYEA: The pope has publicly denounced the war and he did bring it up today. But Mr. Bush says in the meeting the pontiff's comments were about worries he has about Christians there being mistreated by Iraq's Muslim majority.

If that's all that was said on Iraq, it's a far cry from the strong criticism of the war leveled at the president by John Paul II at one of their three Vatican meetings. Pope Benedict did urge the president to work toward a regional and negotiated solution to conflicts and crises around the Middle East.

President Bush, meanwhile, used the meeting to highlight humanitarian work the U.S. is supporting around the world, including his recent call for a doubling -to $30 billion - the amount of money he wants to fight HIV/AIDS on the African continent.

(Soundbite of marching band)

GONYEA: This is President Bush arriving at the Chigi(ph) Palace, which is the official residence of Prime Minister Romano Prodi. They held a meeting over lunch. One sensitive topic that they did not discuss though is the trial that got underway in Italy this week involving the alleged kidnapping by CIA agents of a Milan-based Muslim cleric.

The accused Americans are being tried in absentia for beating the man as part of an investigation into terrorism. The trial raises questions about tactics the U.S. uses in tracking terrorist suspects. At a press conference with the president and prime minister, Prodi was asked about it. He spoke through an interpreter.

President ROMAN PRODI (Italy): (Through translator) We did not discuss the issue that you raised in your questions as somebody(ph) clarified many times that Italy, of course, is a democratic country. We have very clear-cut rules that we follow and we, therefore, enforce our rules.

GONYEA: Topics the two leaders covered included an ongoing violence in Lebanon with President Bush reiterating his insistence that Syria stop interfering there. At the end, Prodi called the session with President Bush friendly.

The president leaves Italy in the morning, heading across the Adriatic to become the first sitting U.S. president to visit Albania. It's a chance for him to highlight the need to support new democracies in the region. Then, he visits Bulgaria before returning home Monday.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, with the president in Rome.

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Bush Meets With Pope, Discusses Iraq, Africa

President Bush (left) met with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican on June 9, 2007.

hide captionPresident Bush (left) met with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican on June 9, 2007.

Plinio Lepri/AFP/Getty Images

President Bush met for the first time with Pope Benedict XVI on Saturday, where the two discussed the war in Iraq, the U.S. humanitarian record, aid to Africa and the situation in Darfur.

After posing for photos, Benedict asked the president about his meetings with G-8 leaders in Germany - the pontiff's homeland. Then, the topic changed to international aid.

"I've got a very strong AIDS initiative," Bush said, sitting with Benedict at a small desk in the pope's private library at the Vatican.

The president promised the pope that he would work to get Congress to double the current U.S. commitment for fighting AIDS in Africa to $30 billion over the next five years.

The pope also asked the president about his meeting in Germany with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has expressed opposition to a U.S. missile shield in Europe.

"The dialogue with Putin was also good?" the pope asked.

Bush, eyeing photographers and reporters who were about to be escorted from the room, replied: "Umm. I'll tell you in a minute."

The pontiff gave the president a drawing of St. Peter's Basillica, an official Vatican medal and coins. "It's beautiful, thank you," Bush said of the drawing.

The president gave the pope a rare edition of an autobiography of John Carroll, the first archbishop in the United States and founder of the Roman Catholic Church in America. Bush also gave the pope lithographs of documents from the National Archives and a walking sticking made by a former homeless man in Dallas, Texas. Bush also has one of the white sticks, which are inscribed with the Ten Commandments.

Bush's visit was met with heavy security. Thousands of police deployed in downtown Rome to counter demonstrations by anti-globalization groups and against Bush's meetings with the pope and Italian officials.

The White House deputy press secretary, Dana Perino, shrugged off the anti-Bush protests. "That is what democracy is all about," she said. "He understands not everybody is going to agree with him."

In a statement, the Vatican said Bush had "warm" talks with the pope and the Vatican's No. 2 official, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. They discussed international politics, particularly in the Middle East, the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Lebanon, the "worrisome situation in Iraq" and the "critical conditions in which the Christian communities (in Iraq) are found," the statement said.

The pontiff expressed his hope for a `'regional" and `'negotiated" solution of conflicts and crises that afflict the region, the Vatican said. Attention was also give to Africa, the humanitarian crisis in Darfur and Latin America.

They also discussed moral and religious questions relating to human rights and religious freedom, the defense and promotion of life, marriage and the family and sustainable development, the Vatican said.

Bush arrived in Rome Friday night, after a stop in the Czech Republic, three days at a summit of industrialized democracies on Germany's northern coast, and a quick, three-hour visit to Poland.

A stomach ailment forced Bush to miss a few meetings at the summit in Germany, but Perino said the president, while "not 100 percent," was feeling better.

The president stays in Rome Saturday night before going on to Albania and Bulgaria.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

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