Saturday, 9 June 2007

Bush visits Pope Benedict

ROME (Map, News) - President Bush, in his first meeting with Pope Benedict XVI, defended his humanitarian record around the globe, telling the Pope on Saturday about U.S. efforts to battle AIDS in Africa.

Bush shook hands, posed for photos and shared a few laughs with the pope and then sat down with him at a small desk in Benedict's private library.

Benedict asked the president about his meetings with leaders of other industrialized nations in Germany, the pontiff's homeland, and then changed the topic to international aid.

"I've got a very strong AIDS initiative," Bush said.

The president promised the pope that he'd work to get Congress to double the current U.S. commitment for combatting 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, apparently eyeing photographers and reporters who were about to be escorted from the room, replied: "Umm. I'll tell you in a minute."

The pope was introduced to the president's top aides. Bush speechwriter William McGurn kissed the pope's ring. The pontiff gave each of them a small gift and the pope and the president also exchanged gifts.

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

Dozens of trucks and buses surrounded the Colosseum, the downtown Piazza Venezia and other historic venues as scores of officers, some in anti-riot gear, poured from their vehicles. The main boulevard leading to St. Peter's Square and the Vatican was closed to traffic. Police and helicopters guarded the area.

Bush was greeted in the courtyard of the Vatican by members of the Swiss Guard, the elite papal security corps dressed in their distinctive orange, blue and red-stripped uniforms.

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican's No. 2, said Benedict planned to discuss the war in Iraq and the plight of Christians in the unstable, violence-wracked country. The war was vigorously opposed by the late Pope John Paul II. In his Easter message, Benedict said "nothing positive comes from Iraq, torn apart by continual slaughter as the civil population flees."

In a pre-trip interview, Bush said: "I think His Holy Father will be pleased to know that much of our foreign policy is based on the admonition to whom much is given, much is required."

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

While in Rome, he'll help back up his message to the Pope about his humanitarian record by visiting a lay Roman Catholic organization that does extensive work in the area.

The Sant'Egidio Community has a $25 million program to provide free antiretroviral drugs for HIV-positive people in 10 African countries, along with follow-up and home care.