Pope Presses Bush on Iraq Violence
Pontiff Mixes Personal Praise, Policy Criticism as Thousands Protest in Rome
By Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 5, 2004; Page A01
ROME, June 4 -- Pope John Paul II urged President Bush on Friday to move quickly to end the "grave unrest" in Iraq and called for a repair of transatlantic relations frayed by the U.S.-led war and occupation.
In a meeting at the Vatican at the start of a three-day presidential trip to Italy and France, the pontiff, 84, praised Bush for his leadership against abortion in the United States and AIDS in Africa. But the pope, who was too weak to stand and barely audible as he read a statement, also had stern words for Bush, deploring the prisoner-abuse scandal in Iraq and violence in the region.
"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," said John Paul, an ardent critic of the war in Iraq. "You are very familiar with the unequivocal position of the Holy See in this regard, expressed in numerous documents, through direct and indirect contacts, and in the many diplomatic efforts which have been made."
The pope also lauded the formation of an interim Iraqi government and urged more U.N. involvement as the administration negotiates a new Security Council resolution supporting the transition of power. The pope spoke of 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."
Bush's meeting with the pope, and one later with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a leading supporter of the Iraq war, came as tens of thousands of antiwar demonstrators assembled in Rome to protest Bush's visit and his alliance with the Italian government. About 10,000 police officers, many wielding automatic weapons and standing behind barricades, kept the protesters several blocks from Bush as he followed an itinerary that took him to a meeting with Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi and to a World War II memorial, the U.S. Embassy and dinner with Berlusconi.
One of the protesters, Marta Zanieri, 25, a physics student at the University of Florence, said that she and two busloads of students were demonstrating "against the war, against the Bush administration, against Berlusconi, against torture and for the self-determination of peoples."
"It's not true that we don't recognize the sacrifice of Americans in 1944," said Manuel Rossi, 29, a recent computer studies graduate. "It's that we don't believe that the liberation of '44 from Nazi fascism is the same as the occupation of Iraq now."
Bush's visit to Italy is part of a trip to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the D-Day invasion in Normandy. The White House requested the meeting with the pope, the third of Bush's term, and rearranged the president's itinerary to accommodate him.
Bush received warm personal words from the pope, who hailed his "commitment to the promotion of moral values in American society, particularly with regard to respect for life and the family," and noted his work to ease suffering in Africa. "Mr. President, as you carry out your lofty mission of service to your nation and to world peace, I assure you of my prayers and cordially invoke upon you God's blessings of wisdom, strength and peace," he said.
Yet the pope did not shy away from criticizing U.S. policy. In a reference to the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, the pope said: "In the past few weeks, other deplorable events have come to light which have troubled the civic and religious conscience of all, and made more difficult a serene and resolute commitment to shared human values. In the absence of such a commitment, neither war nor terrorism will ever be overcome."
The pope said he hoped Bush's visit would give "new impetus" to cooperation with Europe, where opposition to the Iraq war has been strong. "A fuller and deeper understanding between the United States of America and Europe will surely play a decisive role in resolving the great problems which I have mentioned, as well as so many others confronted by humanity today," he said.
Italian newspapers on Friday were dominated by articles about Berlusconi's appeal to demonstrators for calm, about Italian hostages held in Iraq and about an attack this week on the Italian Embassy in Baghdad. A front-page cartoon in the Corriere della Sera newspaper showed Bush and Berlusconi reviewing a military parade on their right and demonstrations on their left, with Berlusconi saying: "George! Always look to your right!" Another newspaper, Liberazione, proclaimed Bush a "persona non grata." Il Giornale, a newspaper owned by Berlusconi's family, made no mention of Bush's visit on its front page.
Across Rome, posters showing the bloodied feet of a corpse proclaimed "Bush's fault." Others featuring a photo of Bush declared him "wanted" for "crimes against humanity." On his way to dine with Berlusconi, Bush's motorcade passed several campaign-style posters, including one showing a crazed U.S. soldier firing a machine gun, and another, from Berlusconi's party, welcoming Bush to Italy.
"When Berlusconi was planning this visit, he hoped that he could enhance Italy's status as the 'best partner state' " after Spain withdrew its troops from Iraq, said commentator Sergio Romano, a former Italian ambassador to NATO and the Soviet Union. "Now it's a bit more delicate: There are the hostages and the mood of public opinion is still strongly against the war." Italians surveyed in polls are evenly split on whether their troops should leave Iraq.
Jeers and whistles accompanied a smattering of applause along the Via della Conciliazione as Bush's entourage, about 15 minutes late, entered a mostly empty St. Peter's Square.
After the traditional greeting by the Swiss Guard, Bush met privately with the pope for about 15 minutes. The pope presented Bush with a bronze bas-relief of the Resurrection. Bush awarded the pope the Presidential Medal of Freedom and praised his moral leadership.
After the meeting, Bush placed a wreath at the Ardeatine Caves, where the Nazis in 1944 killed 335 Italians in retaliation for the killing of German soldiers. During most of the day, the president was joined by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and several White House aides. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice, who had planned to join Bush at the Vatican, stayed behind at the U.S. Embassy to work, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said.
Special correspondent Sarah Delaney contributed to this report.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company