Pope Tells Bush `Speedy' Return of Iraqi Sovereignty Needed
June 4 (Bloomberg) -- Pope John Paul II asked U.S. President George W. Bush for a ``speedy'' return of Iraqi sovereignty and said the situation in the Middle East was of ``great concern.''
``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,'' the pope said after a private meeting with the U.S. president at the Vatican in Rome that lasted about 20 minutes. At the conclusion of the address he said ``God Bless, America.''
This is Bush's third visit with the head of Catholics worldwide as he tries to make inroads with a group that historically has tended to vote for Democrats in the run-up to the November elections. Bush used the visit to defend the U.S.- led war in Iraq, saying that there are times when you have to resort to war to achieve peace, an administration official said.
``I bring greetings from our country, where you are respected, admired and greatly loved,'' Bush said. `` I also bring a message from my government that says to you, sir, we will work for human liberty and human dignity in order to spread peace and compassion, that we appreciate the strong symbol of freedom that you have stood for.''
The pontiff, 84, who was too frail to get up to greet the president, had called the war in Iraq a ``defeat for humanity'' and had urged the U.S. to seek a UN endorsement for any military action against Iraq.
Bush, 57, also presented the pope with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award granted to a civilian.
``His principled stand for peace and freedom has inspired millions and helped topple communism and tyranny,'' Bush said.
The majority of Italians shared the pope's opposition to the war and are also against Italy's participation in the occupation of Iraq. Bush's visit to Rome today drew protests and disrupted transportation, as 10,000 police and soldiers guard against terrorist attacks and patrol demonstrations. Protesters in city were wrapped in rainbow peace flags and brandishing banners with slogans such as ``Get Out of Iraq.''
Forty-seven percent of Italians opposed the presence of Italian soldiers in Iraq, while 43 percent supported it, according to a poll published in Corriere della Sera newspaper on Tuesday, June 1. That was down from a high of 57 percent in April. The Ispo/Allaxia poll interviewed 501 people between May 28-30 and had a margin of error of 4.5 percent.
The war in Iraq isn't the only issue dividing the two leaders. In 2001, the Pope denounced embryonic stem cell research as Bush was weighing federal funding for such work. A year later, Bush told John Paul he was concerned about the standing of the Catholic Church in the U.S. because of a scandal over sexual accusations against priests.
Bush, a Methodist, talks openly about his faith. His views in opposition to abortion, gay marriages and on other social policies mesh with Catholic Church doctrine. His challenger, Democrat John Kerry, 60, is Catholic. A May poll by Princeton Research Associates, which was comprised of 150 interviews, showed Kerry beating Bush among Catholic voters 53 percent.
Bush ran into trouble with some Catholic voters in the Republican presidential primary elections in 2000 after he visited Bob Jones University in South Carolina. The founder and namesake of the university once referred to the Catholic Church as a satanic cult.
Bush apologized, met with Catholic leaders regularly during the campaign, and had the best showing of a Republican presidential candidate among Catholic voters since 1972.