Pope calls for‘negotiated’ end to Mideast crises
Pontiff tells Bush of his concern for plight of Iraqi Christians
With tens of thousands VATICAN CITY • of Italians filling the streets of Rome to decry the war in Iraq, U.S. President George W. Bush was given a more subtle, but still pointed, message about Middle East policy yesterday in his first meeting with Pope Benedict XVI.
Pope Benedict urged Mr. Bush to pursue a “regional and negotiated” solution to the violent crises engulfing the Middle East, a Vatican statement said. It voiced special alarm about the plight of the besieged and dwindling community of Christians in Iraq.
Mr. Bush later said he was “in awe” of the leader of the world’s largest Christian faith, a man with whom he shares conservative religious values, and he sought to reassure the Pope about the possibilities for peace.
“I was talking to a very smart, loving man. I was in awe, and it was a moving experience for me.”
Reporters present before the two went behind doors, however, were surprised to hear Mr. Bush repeatedly refer to the 80-year-old Pope as “sir” instead of the expected “His Holiness.”
The two leaders met privately for 31 minutes at the Vatican’s regal Apostolic Palace, and their discussion later was described by Mr. Bush, the Vatican and aides to both men.
In “cordial discussions,” the Vatican said, “particular attention was given to the Israeli-Palestinian question, to Lebanon, to the worrying situation in Iraq and to the critical conditions being experienced by the Christian communities.”
“On the part of the Holy See, hope was once again expressed in a ‘regional’ and ‘negotiated’ solution to the conflicts and crises afflicting the region,” the Vatican said.
On a six-nation swing through Europe, Mr. Bush also held talks with Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, whose centre-left government has clashed frequently with the U.S. However, after their meeting, Mr. Bush called U.S.-Italian ties “pretty darn solid.”
In fact, both leaders took pains to portray relations between Washington and Rome as friendly and free of serious bilateral disputes, pointing to several areas of co-operation, including Lebanon and Kosovo.
But they avoided mention of more contentious matters. Those include the trial in absentia that started Friday of 26 Americans, most from the CIA, who are accused of abducting a radical imam in Italy in a “extraordinary rendition.”
Mr. Bush probably saw political value in appearing with the Pope, even though he knew to expect a scolding. Any photograph of the president and the pontiff is a reminder of areas they do agree on, including their shared opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, and thus serves as a quiet papal blessing that reinforces Republican Party efforts to reach out to Roman Catholic voters in the U.S.
It is in foreign policy where the differences emerge. The Pope has been vocal in his opposition to bloodshed in the Middle East. By urging Mr. Bush to seek a negotiated solution, he might have been condemning the militaristic approach adopted by this U.S. administration in places such as Iraq, or the hands-off approach taken until recently in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Still, Mr. Bush was spared the more public rebuke he received three years ago when Pope John Paul II launched into a condemnation of the “deplorable” abuses of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison.
True to his personality and style of governance, Pope Benedict did not use Mr. Bush’s presence to make public remarks of substance, and instead chose to deliver his message in private. The Los Angeles Times with files from Agence France-Presse