Bush Meets With Pope at Vatican

By RICHARD W. STEVENSON
Published: June 4, 2004

ROME, June 4 - Pope John Paul II met with President Bush today, calling for the situation in Iraq to be normalized as soon as possible and reminding the president of the Vatican's strong opposition to the war.

Sitting beside the president, the pope urged a speedy return of sovereignty to Iraq, and said the recent appointment of an interim government was an "encouraging step."

"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 pope said.

John Paul also said the world had been troubled by recent "deplorable events," an apparent allusion to the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American troops at Abu Ghraib, near Baghdad.

Mr. Bush, saying "that we appreciate the strong symbol of freedom that you have stood for," presented the pope with America's highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. It was Mr. Bush's third meeting with John Paul since becoming president.

The president was scheduled to meet later with the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, a firm supporter of the coalition occupation of Iraq in the face of opposition by many Italians.

The 84-year-old pope, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, addressed the president and Laura Bush slowly, often one word at a time.

The pope said "deplorable events" in the past few weeks had made "made more difficult a serene and resolute commitment to shared human values." He added, "In the absence of such a commitment, neither war nor terrorism will ever be overcome."

The papal spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, declined to elaborate on those remarks, but did not dispute a characterization that they referred to incidents of abuse at Abu Ghraib.

"Mr. President, your visit to Rome takes place at a moment of great concern for the continuing situation of grave unrest in the Middle East, both in Iraq and in the Holy Land," the pope said.

Thousands of police officers patrolled the streets of Rome today as small groups of demonstrators marched around the capital, protesting Mr. Bush's visit. A large anti-war demonstration was expected to attract thousands later, but a few hundred protesters began early morning marches.

Mr. Bush arrived here today for the start of a European trip intended to rally international support for his efforts to stabilize Iraq and to portray him as a decisive world leader to an election-year audience at home.

Mr. Bush will also go to Paris and Normandy, where he will commemorate the 60th anniversary of D-Day on Sunday. He embarked on the trip on Thursday, two days after Iraq formed an interim government, a development the administration said should help unite even countries that opposed the war behind the goals of ending the violence in Iraq, continuing reconstruction and holding elections.

During the three-day-visit, he will sit down on Saturday with another high-profile opponent of the war, President Jacques Chirac of France.

The White House has played down the possibility of any substantial diplomatic progress on dealing with Iraq, saying it does not expect NATO or any individual European nations to send many additional troops to Iraq. But Mr. Bush is sure to discuss with the Italian and French leaders how to bridge differences over a new United Nations Security Council resolution that would authorize a multinational force in Iraq and put an international stamp on the plan to give Iraqis full self-governance.

"A sovereign Iraq deserves the full support of the international community as it works to establish a representative and freely elected system of government in the months ahead," Mr. Bush told reporters at the White House on Thursday.

Among the issues still being negotiated at the United Nations are how long foreign troops will remain in Iraq and how Mr. Bush's pledge that the interim Iraqi government will have "full sovereignty" will be reconciled with his plan to leave Americans troops there for an undetermined period after June 30.