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President Bush Discusses Iraq, AIDS with Pope

JACKI LYDEN, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jacki Lyden. Debbie Elliott's on assignment.

President Bush is in Italy today where he had his first meeting with Pope Benedict XVI. They spoke for about half an hour at the Vatican. The meeting was closed. The pope seemed to have refrained from strongly criticizing Mr. Bush about the war in Iraq. The president also met with Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi.

NPR's Don Gonyea reports from Rome.

DON GONYEA: President Bush has always described meetings at the Vatican as something special even for a person who's used to VIP treatment at palaces and presidential mansions around the world. Benedict XVI greeted him in the pope's private library. Mr. Bush's greeting was casual.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Oh, it's good to be with you, sir.

Pope BENEDICT XVI: Thank you. (unintelligible)

GONYEA: This was the only portion of the meeting that was open to the press. The Vatican allowed just a very small pool of reporters into the room. They were escorted in and then out a minute later. But in that time, the pontiff and the president could be overheard chatting about Mr. Bush's just concluded trip to the G-8 summit.

There were no formal statements in front of cameras. But later in the day, President Bush described his impressions of the pope, calling him, quote, "a very smart, loving man."

President BUSH: And I was in awe. And it was a moving experience for me.

GONYEA: The pope has publicly denounced the war and he did bring it up today. But Mr. Bush says in the meeting the pontiff's comments were about worries he has about Christians there being mistreated by Iraq's Muslim majority.

If that's all that was said on Iraq, it's a far cry from the strong criticism of the war leveled at the president by John Paul II at one of their three Vatican meetings. Pope Benedict did urge the president to work toward a regional and negotiated solution to conflicts and crises around the Middle East.

President Bush, meanwhile, used the meeting to highlight humanitarian work the U.S. is supporting around the world, including his recent call for a doubling -to $30 billion - the amount of money he wants to fight HIV/AIDS on the African continent.

(Soundbite of marching band)

GONYEA: This is President Bush arriving at the Chigi(ph) Palace, which is the official residence of Prime Minister Romano Prodi. They held a meeting over lunch. One sensitive topic that they did not discuss though is the trial that got underway in Italy this week involving the alleged kidnapping by CIA agents of a Milan-based Muslim cleric.

The accused Americans are being tried in absentia for beating the man as part of an investigation into terrorism. The trial raises questions about tactics the U.S. uses in tracking terrorist suspects. At a press conference with the president and prime minister, Prodi was asked about it. He spoke through an interpreter.

President ROMAN PRODI (Italy): (Through translator) We did not discuss the issue that you raised in your questions as somebody(ph) clarified many times that Italy, of course, is a democratic country. We have very clear-cut rules that we follow and we, therefore, enforce our rules.

GONYEA: Topics the two leaders covered included an ongoing violence in Lebanon with President Bush reiterating his insistence that Syria stop interfering there. At the end, Prodi called the session with President Bush friendly.

The president leaves Italy in the morning, heading across the Adriatic to become the first sitting U.S. president to visit Albania. It's a chance for him to highlight the need to support new democracies in the region. Then, he visits Bulgaria before returning home Monday.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, with the president in Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.