After an audience with the pope, US President George W. Bush continues his farewell European tour with a visit to France - a country better disposed towards the US under Nicolas Sarkozy than it was under Jacques Chirac. (Report: G. Cragg)
US President George W. Bush left Italy on Friday after being treated to a special audience with Pope Benedict XVI, who was returning the hospitality he enjoyed at the White House in April.
The US leader took off for Paris after his 30-minute tete-a-tete with the 81-year-old pontiff in the Vatican's medieval St John's Tower instead of the usual site for papal audiences, the pontiff's private library.
The US leader could be heard exclaiming "what an honour" as he clasped the pontiff's hands in his after stepping out of a black limousine with his wife Laura as Swiss Guards in their striped regalia stood to attention.
The two men emerged from the meeting to take in the view of the elegant Vatican Gardens from the top of the tower before exchanging gifts inside.
Each offered the other a framed photograph of the pair, who also met at the Vatican last year.
The pope and the president then went for a stroll in the gardens, an enclave covering nearly 40 acres (16 hectares) that has been a place of quiet meditation for the popes since the 13th century.
First Lady Laura Bush and other members of the pair's entourages joined them to enjoy the sunshine and a performance by the Sistine Chapel Choir, one of the oldest religious choirs in the world.
The Vatican was to issue a communique on the meeting between Bush and the pope later Friday.
Benedict's trip to the United States coincided with his birthday, which he celebrated in grand style at the White House on April 16, when he was greeted with a 21-gun salute and some 13,500 well-wishers filled the South Lawn.
Bush "is a huge fan of the pope and has full respect for him," White House chief of protocol Nancy Goodman Brinker said.
The 61-year-old US leader "fully supports the (Catholic) Church and fully supports everything this pope is trying to do on behalf of peace, education and hunger in cooperation with world political leaders," she told the ANSA news agency.
Bush, whose relations with pope John Paul II were strained because of the US-led invasion of Iraq, feels closer to Benedict, who appreciates the religious fervour of the president, a born-again Protestant.
The two see eye to eye on key social issues, as both are staunch opponents of same-sex marriage, abortion and embryonic stem-cell research, though they diverge notably on the death penalty.
Benedict has also voiced his concerns for the plight of Christians in Iraq and over harsh CIA interrogation methods.
The Italian press has been rife with speculation that Bush may convert to Catholicism as his brother, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, did years ago, as well as former British prime minister Tony Blair. The latter two men are both married to Catholics.
Bush had talks in Rome on Thursday with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on the third leg of his farewell tour of Europe, which has taken him to Slovenia and Germany and will end with stops in France and Britain.
Date created : 2008-06-13