Prague, 4 June 2004 -- Pope John Paul II has called for the speedy return of Iraq's sovereignty in talks with U.S. President George W. Bush.
The head of the Roman Catholic Church made his comments today during a meeting with Bush at the Vatican, during the first day of the U.S. president's European tour. "It is the evident desire of everyone that this situation [in Iraq] 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," the pope said.
As the two met, thousands of protesters began to gather in Rome for antiwar demonstrations expected later in the day.
The pope has been one of the strongest critics of Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq last year. He told Bush his visit comes "at a moment of great concern for the continuing situation of grave unrest" in Iraq and among Israelis and Palestinians. He also made a veiled reference to revelations of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. troops in Iraq, saying troubling and "deplorable events" have come to light in recent weeks. But he said the recent appointment of a head of state in Iraq and the formation of an interim government are encouraging steps.
In a short speech, Bush described the pope as a devoted servant of God. "His Holiness Pope John Paul II has championed the cause of the poor, the weak, the hungry, and the outcast," he said. "He has defended the unique dignity of every life and the goodness of all life."
Bush also presented the pope with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States' highest civilian award. "The United States honors this son of Poland, who became the bishop of Rome and a hero of our time," he said. "And so on behalf of the American people, Your Holiness, I would be honored if you would accept our Medal of Freedom."
The official agenda of Bush's European trip is to honor the sacrifices made in World War II and to mark two turning points in the war.
In Italy, today's celebrations mark Rome's liberation from the Nazis 60 years ago. Then on 6 June, Bush will be in northwest France for ceremonies commemorating the 1944 D-Day landings of Allied troops.
But commentators say Bush will use the three-day trip to try and win over critics of his Iraq policy -- such as France -- as well as support for a United Nations resolution legitimizing Iraq's new interim government.
(compiled from wire reports)