Christians in Iraq on Bush-Pope agenda

By  Catholic News Service
  • June 14, 2007
{mosimage}VATICAN CITY - Meeting for the first time, Pope Benedict XVI and U.S. President George W. Bush spoke about the precarious situation of Christians in Iraq and a wide range of other foreign policy and moral issues.
The Pope and president looked relaxed as they greeted each other and spoke briefly in front of reporters before their 35-minute private encounter June 9. Bush later held a separate 40-minute meeting with the Vatican’s top foreign policy officials.

A Vatican statement described the meetings as “cordial” and said they had focused in part on “the worrisome situation in Iraq and the critical conditions in which the Christian community finds itself.” Tens of thousands of Christians have fled Iraq over the last four years to escape violence and discrimination. The talks also touched on the overall situation in the Middle East, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and developments in Lebanon.

“The Holy See again expressed the hope for a ‛regional’ and ‛negotiated’ solution to the conflicts and crises that are tormenting the region,” the Vatican statement said.

 {sidebar id=2}  Bush and the Pope also discussed problems in Africa, the humanitarian crisis in Darfur and developments in Latin America, it said.

“Finally, there was an examination of current moral and religious questions, including those related to human rights and religious freedom, the defense and promotion of life, marriage and the family, education of new generations and sustainable development,” the Vatican said.

Before Bush’s visit, the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, went out of his way to praise Bush for his position on abortion and for “positive initiatives in favour of the defense of life from conception.”

Bush went on to tell the Pope that he had recently asked Congress for $30 billion toward fighting the global AIDS crisis, a doubling of the previous U.S. commitment.

After reporters left, the two leaders met privately without aides or interpreters. When the doors of the library opened, Bush’s entourage was led into the room and the president introduced them, one by one, to the Pope.

The Vatican’s concern about Iraq was underlined in another way during the Bush visit. As the president and the Pope ended their meeting, the Vatican released a statement by the newly appointed prefect of the Congregation for Eastern Churches, Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, who said many Eastern-rite Catholics were suffering in Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere because of “war, violence or fear of an uncertain future.”

“I think also of those who must leave their homeland and everything they own,” Sandri said. Church officials have been increasingly distressed at the exodus of Iraqi Catholics following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The last time Bush came for a papal audience, in 2004, Pope John Paul II told him of his deep concern for the situation in Iraq and reminded the president of the “unequivocal position” taken by the Vatican against the war.

Before coming to see Pope Benedict, Bush told reporters that he would be in a “listening mode” when he met the 80-year-old pontiff. He said a papal audience was always a “moving experience.”

“Sometimes I’m not poetic enough to describe what it’s like to be in the presence of the Holy Father,” Bush said.

In comments to reporters after his meeting with the Pope, Bush said the Pope was “deeply concerned” about Christians in Iraq and feared that they were “being mistreated by the Muslim majority.” The Pope “was concerned that the society that was evolving would not tolerate the Christian religion,” Bush said during a joint press conference with Prime Minister Romani Prodi at Chigi Palace, the seat of Italy’s government.

“I assured (the Pope) we were working hard to make sure” Iraqis would respect “that modern constitution voted on by the people that would honour people from different walks of life and different attitudes.”

Bush said the Pope also talked about immigration.

“He’s watching the immigration debate very closely in America and I told him I was a person who strongly supports comprehensive immigration reform that, on the one hand, we will enforce our law and, on the other hand, we need to treat people with dignity,” Bush said.

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