CARACAS, Venezuela – Pope Benedict XVI told Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on Thursday he was very concerned about the Catholic Church's situation in the country, particularly proposed education and health reforms, the Vatican said.
Benedict also repeated the need for the Vatican to have freedom in appointing bishops in the country during a 35-minute meeting, according to a strongly worded statement from Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls.
The pope said he was concerned about an education reform proposal that the Vatican said would exclude religion from being taught in Venezuelan schools. He made an apparent reference to abortion, asking that Venezuela's public health programs respect life.
Benedict also expressed concern about a proposal to remove "Catholic" from the name of the Santa Rosa Catholic university, as well as the need for Catholic media to be able to report independently in the country.
The statement said Chavez assured the pope of his commitment "to overcome every tension in respecting the legitimate rights of all," Navarro-Valls said.
The Catholic Church has been one of the most critical voices against the leftist leader, who has in turn called the church leadership a "tumor." Some Catholic leaders have expressed concern the president may be accumulating too much power.
The Venezuelan president has said repeatedly, however, that he wants good relations with the church.
Chavez often says Christ was a socialist and a revolutionary. He also regularly quotes from the Bible, particularly the passage that says it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven.
During the papal audience, Chavez, presented the pope with a portrait of South American independence leader Simon Bolivar, who was born in what is now Venezuela. Chavez told the pope that Bolivar wasn't an atheist, as many believed, but a Christian. He cited a line from Bolivar's will, which was inscribed on the picture, in which Bolivar wrote that he was Catholic.
"Our Bolivarian revolution is very Christian and I have a friend who isn't Christian, but lately has said he is a Christian in the social aspect: his name is Fidel Castro," Chavez said Wednesday evening after arriving in Italy.
Chavez had said he wanted to raise the issue of poverty in his meeting with the pontiff.
"First of all I will ask for his blessing, then I will talk about world poverty," Chavez was quoted as saying in Italian newspapers Corriere della Sera and La Repubblica on Thursday.
More than 90 percent of Venezuela's population is Roman Catholic, and church leaders and local priests wield tremendous influence over many of its citizens.
Chavez, who is on a visit to Europe and North Africa, met Wednesday with the Communist speaker of Italy's lower house of parliament, Fausto Bertinotti.
After the meeting, Chavez stressed the need to extend cooperation between Venezuela and Italy in the fight against poverty.
The Venezuelan leader's next stops are Vienna, Austria, for a summit of Latin American and European leaders, Britain, Libya and Algeria.