Pope John Paul II Friday called on President Bush to seek a rapid return of sovereignty to Iraq, deplored the abuse of Iraqi prisoners and urged a "fuller and deeper understanding between the United States of America and Europe."

In a meeting with Bush, who presented the pope with the presidential Medal of Freedom, the pontiff, who opposed the invasion of Iraq, spoke of "grave unrest" in Iraq and the Middle East.

"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," he said.

"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 president, who is actively courting the U.S. Catholic vote, has met twice before with the pontiff.

But this was their first meeting since the president began the war in Iraq. The White House requested the meeting and rearranged the president's schedule to make it possible, but ran the risk that the pope or his top advisers could publicly repeat the Vatican's previous objections to U.S. "unilateralism."

While the pope did not employ that term, he did stress the need for "active" international participation in restoring security to Iraq.

The pope, speaking weakly in English from a text, mentioned "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."

Praising the recent formation of an interim Iraqi government, he continued: "May a similar hope for peace also be rekindled in the Holy Land and lead to new negotiations, dictated by a sincere and determined commitment to dialogue, between the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority."

In an apparent reference to the Abu Ghraib prison-torture 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."

Papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls declined to elaborate on the pope's remarks, but did not dispute reporters' characterization that the comments referred to abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, according to wire service reports.

The pope indirectly praised Bush's opposition to abortion, hailing his "commitment to the promotion of moral values in American society, particularly with regard to respect for life and the family." The Roman Catholic leader also praised Bush's efforts, and those of Catholic charities, to ease suffering in Africa.

Greeting Bush at the start of a three-day trip to Italy and France, the pontiff called for healing of the recent strains in transatlantic relations, in large part because of the war in Iraq, opposed by most in Europe.

"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. "May your visit, Mr. President, give new and powerful impetus to such cooperation."

While Bush privately offered a brief defense of his policies to the pope, according to wire service reports, he chose not to get into it in the public exchange between the two.

"I bring greetings from our country," Bush said, "where you are respected, admired and greatly loved. 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 United States to seek a U.N. endorsement for any military action against Iraq.

Thousands of anti-war demonstrators marched in Rome Friday afternoon to protest Bush's appearance here. They were watched by heavily armed riot police. A small group of hooded protesters clashed with police, but the scuffles appeared to break up after a few minutes, the Associated Press reported. It was unclear if anyone was injured.

Forty-seven percent of Italians oppose the presence of Italian soldiers in Iraq, while 43 percent support it, according to a poll published in Corriere della Sera newspaper on Tuesday. 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.

Bush is scheduled to meet tonight and tomorrow morning with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, one of the few European leaders to support the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq. He is also memorializing World War II victims of fascism before leaving Saturday for Paris and Sunday's 60th anniversary remembrance of the D-day invasion of Normandy.

Barbash reported from Washington.