ROME – President Bush, deeply unpopular here and met by boisterous protests, sought to impress Pope Benedict XVI and the Italian public on Saturday with his humanitarian record and downplayed differences with the Vatican over Iraq.
In his meeting with Bush, the Vatican said the pope raised "the worrisome situation in Iraq."
"He was concerned that the society that was evolving would not tolerate the Christian religion," Bush explained at a news conference with Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi during the president's swing through Europe.
"He's worrisome about the Christians inside Iraq being mistreated by the Muslim majority."
Bush met with the prime minister several hours after his first sit-down with Benedict. Bush and Benedict appeared intent to look beyond their differences in Iraq.
The war was vigorously opposed by the late Pope John Paul II, and Benedict, in his Easter message, denounced the "continual slaughter" in Iraq and said that "nothing positive" is happening."
Bush said he assured the pope — whom he described as "very smart, loving man" — that the United States was working hard to ensure that the Iraqi people live up to their constitution in treating Christians fairly.
The president said their was no discussion of "just war," a Christian doctrine that says war must have a reasonable chance of success of not doing more harm than good. According to the doctrine, war must be a last resort, launched in response to unjust aggression and civilians must be safeguarded.
Bush arrived in Rome Friday night, after a stop in the Czech Republic, three days at a summit of industrialized democracies on Germany's northern coast, and a four-hour visit to Poland. A stomach ailment forced Bush to miss a few meetings at the summit in Germany.
He flashed a thumbs-up when asked he was better, though White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino said the president still was "not 100 percent."
The president stays in Rome Saturday night before going on to Albania and Bulgaria.
The pontiff expressed his hope for a "regional" and "negotiated" solution of conflicts and crises that afflict the Middle East, the Vatican said. Bush hailed his humanitarian record.
"We talked about our attempts to help the people in Africa deal with HIV/AIDS and malaria and hunger," Bush said. "I reminded him that we've made a significant commitment to that end."
The president promised the pope that he'd work to get Congress to double the current U.S. commitment for combating AIDS in Africa to $30 billion over the next five years.
The pope asked the president about his meeting in Germany with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has expressed opposition to a U.S. missile shield in Europe and raised eyebrows with democratic rollbacks.
"The dialogue with Putin was also good?" the pope asked.
Bush, eyeing photographers and reporters who were about to be escorted from the room, replied: "Umm. I'll tell you in a minute."
The pontiff presented the president with a drawing of St. Peter's Basilica, an official Vatican gold medal.
The president gave the pope a rare first edition of an autobiography of John Carroll, the first archbishop in the United States and founder of the Roman Catholic Church in America. Bush also gave the pope lithographs of documents from the National Archives and a Moses walking sticking, made by a former homeless man in Dallas, Texas, who engraved it with the Ten Commandments.
Bush's visit to the Vatican — his first meeting with Benedict — was a major event in Rome.
It was carried live on television, even capturing his progress through its marbled, frescoed rooms escorted by a quartet of the Swiss Guard, the elite papal security corps dressed in their distinctive orange, blue and red-striped uniforms.
Protesters also greeted the American president.
Anti-globalization and far-left activists from across Italy converged on the capital. Police swarmed around the Colosseum, the downtown Piazza Venezia and other venues amid fears that a protest planned around Bush's visit could turn violent. Helicopters circled overhead. Up to 10,000 police deployed, local media reported.
Bush aides shrugged off the protests, calling them democracy in action; Bush apologized for disrupting traffic as his motorcade moved through Rome under heavy security.
He stressed that U.S.-Italy relations were "pretty darn solid."
Prodi agreed. "We do share the same views with regard to many issues and many matters," he said. "We basically agree on how the future of the world should look, should be."
At a podium at the Chigi Palace, across the Atlantic from Washington, Bush also took a shot at Capitol Hill.
Bush said his decision to replace Gen. Peter Pace as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff reflected the Democratic-led Congress' opposition to the war in Iraq. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Friday that bitter divisions over the Iraq war among lawmakers led the Bush administration to replace Pace Adm. Mike Mullen, currently chief of naval operations.
"Pete Pace is a fine man and a great general and I think the fact that Secretary Gates made the recommendation not to move forward with a renomination speaks to the U.S. Congress and the climate in the U.S. Congress," Bush said.
While in Rome, Bush took time to meet with former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Prodi ousted Berlusconi a year ago, replacing a like-minded conservative and strong ally of Bush's with a center-left leader whose government has spared Washington no criticism.
"He is the opposition leader and he is a friend," Bush said, explaining his decision to visit with Berlusconi. Bush said Prodi didn't "blame" the president for stopping to chat with his predecessor.
Bush also visited, at the U.S. embassy, with members of a lay Roman Catholic organization. The Sant'Egidio Community has a $25 million program, partly funded by the United States, to provide free antiretroviral drugs for HIV-positive people in 10 African countries, along with follow-up and home care.
Bush began his day with a short meeting with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano at Quirinale Palace, his official residence. The Italian president told Bush that there had been speculation that U.S.-Italy relations would slide under Prodi, but Perino said Bush told Napolitano: "The opposite has proven true."
Still, Italian-U.S. relations are a bit strained.
Italy has withdrawn troops from Iraq and is reluctant to send additional soldiers to Afghanistan. And just hours before Bush's arrival Friday, the first trial involving the CIA's extraordinary rendition program opened in a Milan courtroom.
Along with the 26 Americans on trial for the abduction of an Egyptian cleric, a U.S. soldier is on trial in Rome for the March 2005 slaying of an Italian spy in Baghdad. In both cases, the U.S. citizens are being tried in absentia.
Prodi said he and Bush did not discuss the trials.