4-June-2004 -- Catholic World News Brief |

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Vatican, Jun. 04 (CWNews.com) - Pope John Paul II called for a rapid "normalization" of the situation in Iraq, under international supervision, as he met on June 4 with US President George W. Bush.

Although many observers expected a clash, a Vatican spokesman said that the two were in agreement on the situation in Iraq.

The Holy Father also spoke of the need to confront the threat of terrorism, saying that this could be done effectively only through "a serene and resolute commitment to shared human values." He praised American humanitarian work, especially in the fight against AIDS in Africa. And he saluted President Bush for his "promotion of moral values in American society, particularly with regard to respect for life and the family."

Bush, in his turn, warmly thanked the Pope for receiving his delegation, which included his wife, Laura Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and security adviser Condoleeza Rice. He told the Pontiff that he brought the best wishes of "my country, where you are respected, admired, and very much loved."

During his visit, the American leader presented John Paul II with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor bestowed by the United States. Bush read aloud the citation that accompanied the honor, which cited the Pope as "a hero of our times."

Pope John Paul appeared badly fatigued during his public session with the US delegation. His voice was clear as he delivered his prepared remarks in English, but his speech was very slow and badly slurred, at times to the point of being incomprehensible. Prior to their formal exchange of remarks before the Vatican press corps, Bush and the Pope had spoken privately in the library of the apostolic palace. At the conclusion of their public session, Bush met with the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano.

Briefing reporters after the meeting, Joaquin Navarro-Valls said that the Pope and President Bush had found "points of convergence, especially regarding the process of normalization in Iraq." The director of the Vatican press office said that Bush and the Pontiff had held a "very cordial" private talk before their public exchange.

Navarro-Valls reported that during that private talk the Pope had made some of the same points that were included in his published address. John Paul II praised American efforts to promote better health care in the Third World, and particularly to fight AIDS in Africa. And Navarro-Valls reiterated the Pope's homage to Bush for promoting the dignity of human life and marriage on the American political scene.

It was Cardinal Sodano-- along with the American-born chief of the pontifical household, Bishop James Harvey-- who had met President Bush in the St. Damasus courtyard of the apostolic palace when he arrived for his third personal meeting with the Pontiff.

Bush was in Italy for commemorations of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Rome by US troops during World War II. He had altered his travel schedule, arriving a day earlier than originally planned, in order to meet with the Pope. Later in the day Bush would meet with Italian government officials, then leave on Saturday for France, and ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of D-Day. Also on June 5, Pope John Paul will begin a two-day trip to Switzerland.

The Pope mentioned those busy schedules when he thanked Bush for making the time for their visit, acknowledging the scheduling "difficulties presented by your own many commitments during this present visit to Europe and Italy, and by my own departure tomorrow morning." And John Paul II said that he shared the emotions of the American people as he recalled "the sacrifice of those valiant dead" who paid the price of freedom in World War II. Contrary to some observers' expectations, the Pope did not explicitly remind President Bush of his opposition to the war in Iraq-- although he did allude to "the unequivocal position of the Holy See." Instead he spoke of "the evident desire of everyone that this situation now be normalized as quickly as possible with the active participation of the international community and, in particular, the United Nations Organization, in order to ensure a speedy return of Iraq's sovereignty, in conditions of security for all its people."

The Pope then mentioned his hope that a similar movement toward peace could be "rekindled in the Holy Land," leading to new negotiations between Israel and Palestine.

Turning to the war on terrorism, the Pope reminded Bush that he had immediately condemned the attacks of September 11, 2001, and marked that day as "a dark day in the history of humanity." In his only critical remark about US policies, he followed up by remarking other deplorable events have come to light which have troubled the civic and religious conscience of all." Navarro-Valls declined to elaborate on that comment, but he did not dispute reporters' analysis when they suggested that the Pope was referring to abuse of Iraqi prisoners by US troops. The Pope had gone on to say that these "deplorable events" created new difficulties for the war on terrorism.

The Pope concluded his remarks by praising US initiatives to help the needy, especially in Africa. And as he gratefully accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Pope said: "May the desire for freedom, peace and a more humane world symbolized by this medal inspire men and women of good will in every time and place." Pope John Paul ended his remarks simply: "God bless America!"

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