Bush meets pope, faces protests

02:16:29 PM
04 2004

Bush meets pope, faces protests

ROME, Italy -- President Bush met Friday with Pope John Paul II, who has expressed fervent opposition to the war in Iraq, as the U.S. leader began a 36-hour tour of Italy and Vatican City.

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A limousine carried Bush and first lady Laura Bush into the Vatican, where the president presented the pope with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. award offered to a civilian.

With the colorful Swiss Guard silently standing by, the Bushes were greeted at the Vatican by cardinals and ushers, who escorted them through the ornate halls of the pope's residence to the meeting with the pontiff in his study.

After a brief photo opportunity for the press, Bush and the pope began a private meeting, which was followed by public statements from both and the presentation of the award.

In his remarks, the pope called for the speedy return of Iraq's sovereignty.

"It is 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 pontiff said.

Bush then presented the pope with the medal, calling John Paul "a devoted servant of God."

"We appreciate the strong symbol of freedom that you have stood for and we recognize the power of freedom to change societies and to change the world," Bush said.

Later Friday, Bush was to meet with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a staunch supporter and U.S. ally in the war.

Bush is in Europe on a trip designed to enlist more international support for rebuilding Iraq and to commemorate two key anniversaries of World War II.

Bush will mark the 60th anniversaries of the liberation of Rome by Allied forces on June 4, 1944 and the D-Day invasion two days later.

But the current war in Iraq, not the events of six decades ago, will be on the minds and lips of tens of thousands of demonstrators, who plan to protest the president's visit in the historic Piazza Venezia.

Security has been bolstered in the Italian capital, with 10,000 police officers deployed, amid fears that anti-Bush protests could turn ugly.

Initial plans called for Bush to travel to the piazza to lay a wreath at Italy's tomb of the unknown soldier, but those plans had to be scrapped for security reasons.

Berlusconi said Thursday that he is "worried about the possible violence."

"I am concerned by the conviction among some youths that burning a flag, smashing a window or worse gives more force to their ideas," he said. "Exactly the opposite is true."

The Italian leader called on his countrymen to remember the "true bond" between Americans and Italians cemented by their liberation from Nazism and fascism during World War II.

"Through him, we will say 'thank you' to the American people, which he represents, and for what Americans did June 4, 1944, for us and our liberty," he said. "It is our right to welcome him, putting aside any political judgment on the military intervention in Iraq."

Anti-Bush posters and fliers have spread around the city. While most of the demonstrators have urged peaceful protests, others have called for more radical activity.

Bush and his wife, Laura, arrived at an airport near Rome shortly after midnight after a flight from Washington.

A senior administration official, speaking to reporters on Air Force One en route to Italy, said Bush was not troubled by the protests.

"That's why they were liberated from fascism, so they can go into the streets and protest," the official said. "It's all a part of the democratic enterprise."

Berlusconi has stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Bush on Iraq, committing troops to the conflict despite the opposition of a majority of Italians.


Source by RAI_News_24

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