VATICAN CITY – The Vatican on Saturday bid farewell to Tony Blair (search) as British prime minister, wishing him well on what it said were his plans to work for Middle East peace and interreligious dialogue.
Blair held long talks with Pope Benedict XVI (search), with the Vatican stop on his farewell tour fueling rumors that he plans to convert to Catholicism. The two men met privately for 25 minutes and then were joined for further talks by English Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor.
A Vatican press office called the audience a normal meeting between the pope and a government leader. Blair leaves office on Wednesday.
The statement, issued after the talks with Benedict and a separate meeting with Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, said there was a "frank" assessment of the international situation, including such "delicate" themes as the Middle East (search) conflict and the future of the European Union.
The Vatican opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which Blair has supported.
The statement said that best wishes were expressed for Blair's future, saying that he has expressed the desire "to dedicate himself in a particular way for peace in the Middle East and for interreligious dialogue."
Earlier this week, it was suggested that President Bush (search), a close ally, wants Blair to take the job of Middle East envoy for the Quartet of peacemakers — the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia. Downing Street has refused comment on the reports.
Greeted by Benedict, Blair explained that he had just arrived from an EU summit in Brussels.
"I heard it was very successful," Benedict said.
"Yes, we had a very long night. We finished up at 5:30 in the morning," Blair replied.
In an interview with The Times of London, Blair said Saturday the issue of his religious beliefs was complex and that he was nervous about discussing his faith with the pope.
"It's difficult with some of these things," Blair told the newspaper. "Things aren't always as resolved as they might be."
As for reports that Blair is on the verge of formally converting, a spokesman for the prime minister repeated the official line that "he remains a member of the Church of England."
Blair, his wife and children met Benedict in a private, hour-long audience a year ago. He also met with Pope John Paul II in 2003.
Blair's wife Cherie is Roman Catholic, the couple's children have attended Catholic schools and Blair habitually attends Catholic rather than Anglican services.