JOHN YDSTIE, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Scott Simon is on paternity leave. I'm John Ydstie.
President Bush began what could be a difficult visit to Italy today. He met the Italian president and Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican. The one-day visit could be overshadowed by large anti-war, anti-Bush rallies with anti-globalist activists from all over Italy arriving in Rome by the trainload.
NPR's Sylvia Poggioli joins us on the line from Rome.
Sylvia, this was President Bush's first meeting with Benedict XVI. What did they talk about?
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Well, the president and the pope were smiling broadly as they shook hands and they exchanged a few remarks in front of the media. The president said there had been differences of opinion at the G-8 meeting but it was good. The pope then asked him, Putin was also good? And President Bush laughed and said, I'll tell you in a minute. They then spoke for 31 minutes behind closed doors, which is long by Vatican standards.
The Vatican had announced ahead of time what issues the pope would raise. First of all, religious freedom in the Middle East where the number of Christians is dropping rapidly especially in Iraq where, according to Catholic charities, there are currently only 25,000, down from 500,000 Christians in 2003.
Benedict is very concerned about what the Vatican sees as a religious cleansing campaign aimed at ghettoizing Christians in small enclaves in Iraq. On the other hand, the pope and President Bush share common ground on issues such as abortion, stem cell research and euthanasia. And behind the scenes in Vatican circles, there's considerable satisfaction for the presence now of five conservative Catholic justices at the Supreme Court.
YDSTIE: Sylvia, I understand the president also met with a Catholic group, the Community of Sant'Egidio, which is active on the international stage. It's -tell us a little about that group.
POGGIOLI: Well, Sant'Egidio, which takes its name from the small monastery where it's located in the heart of Rome, has brokered peace deals in Africa, notably, Mozambique in 1992. And has been very successful in its HIV/AIDS missions in African countries. It claims to have pioneered a new AIDS response by focusing on therapy. It provides free of charge anti-retroviral drug similar to those available to people in the West.
One topic, however, that was certainly not on the agenda, for diplomatic reasons, was the death penalty. Sant'Egidio has spearheaded a campaign for a worldwide moratorium against capital punishment alongside Amnesty International.
YDSTIE: At the last moment, I understand, the meeting with Sant'Egidio was shifted from their headquarters to the U.S. embassy. What happened?
POGGIOLI: Well, Sant'Egidio is located in Trastevere, which - with very narrow winding streets is a security nightmare for Italian police. Hundreds of cars and motorcycles had already been towed away and they were also told cell phone coverage would be blacked out during the visit.
Finally, White House officials bowed to Italian police appeals to hold the meeting elsewhere. Security is still very tight. Ten thousand police are deployed including hundreds of snipers on rooftops. Many streets are blocked to traffic. Everyone is bracing for two big anti-war rallies later in the day. Many buildings are covered with rainbow peace flags and anti-Bush slogans.
YDSTIE: And Mr. Bush's visit comes at the time of strained U.S.-Italy relations. What are the main causes?
POGGIOLI: Well, the center-left government pulled Italian troops out of Iraq. It also is lukewarm about sending more troops to Afghanistan. Prime Minister Romano Prodi, like several other European leaders, is skeptical about the U.S.-proposed missile shield. And two court cases are causing U.S.-Italian tensions. A trial against a U.S. soldier accused of killing an Italian intelligence agent in Baghdad and the kidnapping trial that opened yesterday in Milan against 26 Americans.
YDSTIE: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reporting from Rome. Thank you, Sylvia.
POGGIOLI: Thank you.