- The Washington Times - Friday, June 4, 2004

VATICAN CITY — Pope John Paul II yesterday upbraided President Bush, condemning the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S.-led troops and calling on the president to seek “the active participation of the international community” to ensure Iraq quickly regains its sovereignty.

The stooped and frail pontiff used unequivocal language as he told the president that Europe must play a greater role in solving the world’s problems and said the president’s 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 the Holy Land.”

Pope John Paul II also took note of Mr. Bush’s attempt to foster a culture of life in the United States. Unlike his criticism last week that American society is turning away from spirituality and giving way to a “soulless vision of life,” the pontiff offered the president kind words for his efforts.

“I also continue to follow with great appreciation your commitment to the promotion of moral values in American society, particularly with regard to respect for life and the family.”

On Mr. Bush’s last visit in 2002, the pontiff urged the president to move forward with a ban on the use of embryonic stem cells for research. The president has outlawed the use of federal money on stem-cell research using cloned cells.

On Iraq, the pope said: “It is 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.

“A fuller and deeper understanding between the United States of America and Europe will surely play a decisive role in resolving the great problemswhich I have mentioned,” he said.

France, the next stop for Mr. Bush on his four-day trip, and Germany have both strongly opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq. French President Jacques Chirac has been one of Mr. Bush’s most vocal critics, going so far as to publicly urge other European nations to oppose the war as the Bush administration turned up rhetoric against Saddam Hussein.

Mr. Bush, who arrived at a large courtyard at the Vatican palace behind the 17th-century St. Peter’s Basilica an uncharacteristic 20 minutes late, met with the pope for about 15 minutes in the pontiff’s ornate private library, with paintings of the Virgin Mary and the Resurrection of Christ on the walls.

The president expressed no reaction as the pope, taking deep breaths but still able only to speak two or three words at a time, delivered his rebuke. The 84-year-old pontiff, whose arms ands legs trembled visibly because of advancing Parkinson’s disease, did not look up from his statement as he read, often one word at a time.

In a short statement afterward, the pope, who expressed outrage shortly after photographs last month emerged showing U.S. troops mistreating Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad, referred indirectly to the scandal as he directly connected the transgressions to terrorism and the September 11 attacks on America.

“The threat of international terrorism remains a source of constant concern. It has seriously affected normal and peaceful relations between states and people since the tragic date of 11 September 2001, which I have not hesitated to call ‘a dark day in the history of humanity.’ ”

For his part, Mr. Bush offered praise and admiration for the leader of 1.1 billion Catholics worldwide — and more than a quarter of the U.S. electorate whom he has courted but who also could choose Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, a Catholic.

As part of his visit, Mr. Bush gave the pope the presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian award and read from its citation.

“His Holiness Pope John Paul II has championed the cause of the poor, the weak, the hungry, and the outcast. He has defended the unique dignity of every life and the goodness of all life. Through his faith and moral conviction, he has given courage to others to be not afraid in overcoming injustice and oppression. His principled stand for peace and freedom has inspired millions and helped to topple communism and tyranny,” Mr. Bush said.

The pope accepted the medal and said: “God bless America.”

Mr. Bush also said he brought “greetings from our country, where you are respected, admired and greatly loved” and “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.”

But outside the world’s smallest city-state, thousands of protesters blocked traffic, lit trash cans and marched along main thoroughfares in Rome. One group carried a U.S. flag defaced with a swastika while others held signs that said: “Bush Go Home.”

Masked police snipers manned the roofs surrounding the U.S. ambassador’s residence where Mr. Bush stayed and up to 10,000 police officers were posted along streets. As helicopters buzzed overhead, riot police with shields formed a human wall outside Rome’s Termini station, as well as along routes intended for use by presidential motorcades.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a staunch U.S. ally, called the protests “a flop.” He said Rome police told him there were 6,000 demonstrators, a far cry from the 1 million who protested before the war. He added that about 4,000 had come from outside of Rome. But official tallies put the number of protesters at about 25,000.

Mr. Bush hastily added a stop to Rome after Mr. Chirac failed to invite the Italian leader to tomorrow’s 60th anniversary commemoration of the invasion of D-Day, when Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy, which marked the beginning of the end of World War II.

The president arrives in Paris this evening after a bilateral meeting in Rome with Mr. Berlusconi. The prime minister accompanied the president on several stops yesterday, including a visit to the Ardeatine Caves, site of one of the worst World War II massacres in Italy.

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