Sunday, June 24, 2007

VATICAN CITY — British Prime Minister Tony Blair held private talks with Pope Benedict XVI yesterday, stoking speculation he might convert to Catholicism after he steps down this week after a decade in power.

Mr. Blair’s gifts to the pope were a trio of original photographs of John Henry Newman, a 19th century Anglican leader who was one of Britain’s most illustrious converts to Catholicism.

Mr. Blair, on the final leg of his farewell world tour, spoke privately with the pope for 25 minutes in the pontiff’s study. The talks were then enlarged to include Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, head of Britain’s Roman Catholics.

A Vatican statement made no reference to Mr. Blair’s possible conversion. Mr. Blair is Anglican; his wife, Cherie, and their four children are Catholics.

Mrs. Blair accompanied her husband to the Vatican and was introduced to the pope with the British delegation at the end of the private talks. She wore a black dress and a black veil.

Benedict and Mr. Blair discussed Europe and the Middle East, the statement said. The Vatican welcomed Mr. Blair’s intention to work for Middle East peace and inter-religious dialogue after he steps down Wednesday.

The Vatican press office called the audience a normal meeting between the pope and a government leader.

In an interview published by the London Times Magazine yesterday, Mr. Blair indicated his conversion may not be just around the corner.

Asked if he would convert, Mr. Blair said, “I don’t want to talk about it. It’s difficult with some of these things. Things aren’t always as resolved as they might be.”

The Blairs gave the pope a frame containing three period photographs of Newman, who died in 1890. One of the photographs was signed.

Newman was a leading Anglican clergyman who converted in 1845 and was later made a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church. In 1991 he was declared “venerable,” putting him on the road to Roman Catholic sainthood.

London’s Guardian newspaper, citing “informed sources” Friday, said Mr. Blair had been prepared for conversion by a Royal Air Force chaplain who has celebrated a private Mass for the Blair family for the last four years.

Mr. Blair reportedly took Communion from the late Pope John Paul II during a visit to the Vatican in 2003, although the Vatican has never confirmed it.

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