Saturday, June 14, 2008

ROME | President Bush received an unprecedented welcome Friday from Pope Benedict XVI in the tranquil Vatican Gardens in a break with protocol that fueled speculation in Italian newspapers that the U.S. leader may be considering converting to Roman Catholicism.

“Such an honor, such an honor,” Mr. Bush said to the pontiff as Benedict strolled with him past the bubbling fountains and imposing trees of the gardens that are rarely seen by anyone other than the pope’s close entourage in his tiny sovereign state.

The manicured park is traditionally where popes take time off to meditate and recover from the rigors of Vatican diplomacy.

The two men had 30 minutes of talks in the medieval St. John’s Tower before standing on a terrace under a scorching sun to admire the view of the 108 acres making up the Holy See and listening to a performance by the Sistine Chapel choir while sitting on lawn chairs.

Popes normally receive visiting heads of state in the pontiff’s imposing library in the Apostolic Palace next to St Peter’s Basilica, but Benedict wanted to return the special hospitality he had received at the White House on his 81st birthday during his sojourn in the United States in April, Vatican sources said.

The stopover in the Vatican was one of the most agreeable during Mr. Bush’s farewell European tour that later took him to France on Friday and may have been the most significant part of his trip for him personally, according to Italian commentators.

“The rosy legend of a possible conversion of Bush to Catholicism has started to circulate,” wrote Marco Politi, the respected Vatican correspondent of La Repubblica newspaper, noting that the president’s brother Jeb converted to Roman Catholicism as has former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

La Repubblica headlined its report “The mystery of the conversion during the visit to the pope.”

The leading Corriere della Sera of Milan newspaper noted that the apostolic nuncio, or the Vatican’s ambassador, in Washington, Pietro Sambi, may have hinted at a possible conversion when talking about the conversations the pope held with Mr. Bush in the United States in April.

The conversation “was of a private nature,” the nuncio had said, “we know what the parties made public, without being able to exclude that other themes were broached.”

In Washington, the White House called reports on Mr. Bush’s plan for a conversion “baseless speculation.”

“There’s nothing to those rumors,” spokesman Tony Fratto said Friday.

Father Richard John Neuhaus, a prominent Catholic priest who runs the monthly magazine First Things and has been consulted by Mr. Bush, also discounted the reports. “I’d be very surprised,” he said.

A Vatican statement said Friday the pope and Mr. Bush discussed the “defense of fundamental moral values” as well as the Middle East and a commitment to peace in the Holy Land, globalization and the world food crisis.

Differences remain between the Holy See and Washington, for instance on the death penalty and U.S. policy toward Cuba, but Benedict evidently feels closer to Mr. Bush than his predecessor, Polish-born Pope John Paul II, who strongly opposed the invasion of Iraq. Many Vatican diplomats now see a continued U.S. military presence in Iraq as essential to protect the Christian minority in Iraq who might otherwise be wiped out, Vatican sources say.

Jon Ward in Washington contributed to this article.

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