Obama and Pope in frank talks

The US president meets Pope Benedict XVI for the first time for a brief, but frank discussion on issues.

Pope Benedict XVI and Barack Obama, the US president, exchange gifts as the first lady, Michelle Obama, watches at the Vatican.
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The US president, Barack Obama, met Pope Benedict XVI for the first time yesterday for a brief, but frank discussion on issues they hold common beliefs on, such as peace in the Middle East, as well as those which divide them, such as abortion and stem cells. During the 40-minute meeting, Mr Obama told the Pope, the spiritual leader of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics, that he wanted to reduce the number of abortions in the United States, the Vatican spokesman, Federico Lombardi, told reporters after Mr Obama had left.

Mr Lombardi said the Pope was "very impressed" by Mr Obama and that the Pontiff was "extremely satisfied" with the talks. But in a surprise move, the Pope gave Mr Obama, who last March lifted restrictions of federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research, a copy of a recent Vatican document on bioethics in which the Holy See explains its opposition to such practices. Dignitas Personae (dignity of a person) condemns artificial fertilisation and other techniques used by many couples and also says human cloning, "designer babies" and embryonic stem-cell research were immoral.

Mr Obama quipped that he would "have something to read" on board Air Force One as he flew to Ghana for the final leg of his weeklong tour. The US president arrived from L'Aquila, the Italian city that hosted the three-day G8 summit, and was greeted by an honour guard of the Swiss Guard as he walked into the Vatican's Apostolic Palace. For security reasons, the Italian authorities cordoned off roads around the Vatican City and mobile phone coverage was blocked as the presidential motorcade swept through.

The Pope chatted with the president in front of cameras at the papal library, with Mr Obama saying it was "a great honour" to meet the Pontiff, before the two went into closed-door talks. As well as discussing controversial issues, the Pope and Mr Obama discussed their "shared desire" for Middle East peace, an aide said. Mr Obama "expressed appreciation for the long-standing effort of the Holy See and the Pope himself in promoting" a Middle East solution said Denis McDonough, the deputy security adviser, told reporters aboard the president's plane. During a visit to the West Bank in May, the Pope had outlined his support for a two-state solution.

The US president told the Pontiff that "all sides have responsibilities in this effort" and vowed to continue delivering that message, Mr McDonough said. Mr Obama also "expressed his hope that the holy father would continue to do that as well, including responsibilities that we believe are important, not just from Israelis but also from the neighbouring Arab states". The Vatican last month praised Mr Obama for his speech to the world's Muslims in Cairo as a "significant" step towards improving interfaith relations.

At the end of Mr Obama's meeting with the Pontiff, gifts were exchanged and the pair were joined by the president's wife, Michelle. Mrs Obama earlier had visited the Vatican's St Peter's Basilica and the Sistine Chapel. The Pope broke with normal practice to send Mr Obama a personal note of congratulations after the November presidential election in which the Democrat received a majority of votes cast by the 60 million Roman Catholics in the US.

Since taking office, however, Mr Obama has lifted a ban on government funding for embryonic stem-cell research and for family planning groups that support abortion, to the dismay of some American Catholics. There have also been difficulties over the appointment of the new administration's ambassador to the Holy See, with news reports in April suggesting the Vatican rejected at least three candidates proposed informally by US officials. Among them was said to be Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of the late John F Kennedy, who along with the others was vetoed because of her support for abortion.

In late May, the White House nominated Miguel Diaz, a Cuban-born professor of theology, although he has yet to receive Senate confirmation. Since diplomatic relations between the US and the Vatican were established in 1984, the US ambassador has always been an anti-abortion Catholic. The US president is a Protestant who attended a Catholic school for several years while a child in Indonesia. dbardsley@thenational.ae

* Additional reporting by Reuters and the Associated Press