In a morning of ceremony before plunging into the hard business awaiting him in Venice, President Carter conferred with Pope John Paul II today and declared that the protection of human rights is the first duty of governments.

The two men met for 50 minutes in the pope's book-lined study overlooking St. Peter's Square and then made public statements to assembled reporters.

The president, whose rhetoric on this week-long trip to Europe has been harshly critical of the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan, made only an indirect reference to the invasion as he used the occasion to reiterate his commitment to human rights.

"The current world situation," Carter said, "is fraught with conflicting interests that threaten bloodshed," but is also "alive with possibilities for reconciliation and we must seize these initiatives and use them.

"Nations can begin by heeding a universal moral and political imperative that the protection of the human rights of each person is the premise and purpose of governments," Carter continued. "They can also respect as sacrosanct the sovereignty of other nations."

In his remarks, the pope stressed his concern for peace in the Middle East, saying that a resolution of the status of Jerusalem is "pivotal" to any peace settlement. He also urged that "just attention be given to the issues affecting Lebanon and the whole Palestinian problem."

The presidential visit to the splendors of the Vatican was a photographic extravaganza and a perfect election year setting for Carter, who has already made generous use of the pope's visit to the White House last fall in his reelection campaign television commercials.

Before arriving at the Vatican, the president made an unannounced stop at the memorial that marks the spot where former Italian prime minister Aldo Moro's body was found in 1978 after he was murdered by Italian terrorists. Carter laid a wreath with the inscription, "From the president and the people of the United States" at the monument.

The president also stopped at the U.S. Embassy in Rome and addressed more than 1,000 embassy employes and other Americans. Carter used this occasion to allude to the continued holding of U.S. diplomats in Iran. "We never forget them in our prayers and in our considerations," Carter said.

The pope greeted Carter with a handshake outside the papal study. After private talks, there was an exchange of gifts. The pope gave the president a leather-bound, illustrated 15th century Bible, remarking, "it's to read."

Carter opened the Bible and apparently noting that the text was in Latin, replied, "It would be easier for you than me."

Along with his wife, Rosalynn, and daughter, Amy, the president was then given an hour-long tour of the Vatican, including the Pauline and Sistine chapels and St. Peter's Basilica. "Its beautiful and awe-inspiring, the president said.

Carter's final stop at the Vatican was in the Clementine room, a 16th century chapel where several hundred Americans, including a large number of American Indians, were gathered.

The American Indians are here for the beautification ceremony Sunday of Kateri Takakwitha, a Mohawk Indian who died in 1680. Beautification is the first step toward sainthood in the Catholic Church.