President George W. Bush sought to reassure Pope Benedict XVI on the plight of war-torn Iraq's minority Christians, the US leader said Saturday.
Addressing the 80-year-old Roman Catholic leader as "sir" instead of the usual honorific "Your Holiness", Bush heard the Pope's concerns about the Middle East and the plight of Christians in Iraq.
The pope "did express deep concern about the Christians inside
Iraq," Bush told a joint news conference with Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi. "I assured him we were working hard to make sure that people lived up to the constitution" calling for religious tolerance, he added.
A Catholic Chaldean priest and three deacons were murdered last Sunday in northern Iraq, followed three days later by the kidnapping of another priest and five of his parishioners.
The Chaldean Catholic church is an autonomous Eastern rite church with upwards of 700,000 followers that maintains full communion with the Vatican.
The Pontiff was "deeply saddened" by the murders and sent a telegram to Mosul Bishop of the Chaldeans Paul Faraj Rahho to convey "heartfelt condolences" to the victims' families, a Vatican statement said
He also called on "all men and women of good will" to work towards reconciliation in Iraq. Benedict said "it was hoped, once more, for 'regional' and 'negotiated' solutions to the conflicts and crises afflicting the (Middle East) region," describing the half-hour talks with Bush as "cordial."
The pope, speaking later Saturday to officials of the Vatican department concerned with the Eastern rite church, urged that "everywhere, from the East to the West, the churches can profess their Christian faith in full freedom." He said all Catholics should "be guaranteed dignity, respect ... (and) their rights as believers and citizens."
Bush and his wife Laura, who wore a black veil, took a more circuitous route to the Vatican than usual, which disappointed thousands waiting to see him.
It was not clear if this was for security reasons, although 10,000 police were deployed as a precaution in central Rome.
Leftists and pacifists opposed to the war in Iraq and the expansion of a U.S. military base in northern Italy took trains to Rome for mass protests likely to echo those at the G8. Many who elected Prime Minister Romano Prodi's centre-left coalition -- which is critical of U.S. foreign policy -- joined the rally and four communist deputies from Prodi's alliance hung a banner outside parliament that read: "No Bush, No War".
"Bush is the biggest international terrorist. It's a disgrace that the Italian government elected by the votes of pacifists should invite him to this country," said Elio Luppoli, arriving in Rome with about 70 protesters from Milan.
The protest began peacefully but fears it could turn violent were highlighted by the cancellation of Bush's planned visit to Rome's colourful Trastevere quarter, where he was to have met leaders of the Sant'Egidio Roman Catholic community.
The Sant'Egidio group nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for its work brokering peace and fighting AIDS in Africa, met Bush at the U.S. embassy instead.
Bush had warm words for Prodi, despite concern when he came to power a year ago that Italy would no longer be the firm ally it was under his conservative predecessor Silvio Berlusconi. "I look forward to seeing Silvio. We took some important decisions together," Bush said at a joint news conference with Prodi. "I have known Romano a long time too. He was president of the EU (European Union) in the early part of my presidency."