| George W. Bush (centre) shakes hands with Pope John Paul as Vatican state secretary Cardinal Angelo Sodano looks on. (AFP)
Vatican City, June 4 (Reuters): Pope John Paul told US President George W. Bush today that Iraq had to regain sovereignty swiftly and deplored the abuse of Iraqi prisoners.
“It is the evident desire of everyone that this situation now be normalised as quickly as possible with the active participation of the international community and, in particular, the UN organisation, in order to ensure a speedy return of Iraq’s sovereignty,” the 84-year-old pontiff said.
The pope, who strongly opposed the US-led invasion of Iraq last year, met Bush in the Vatican while thousands of armed police lined major roads in Rome and anti-war demonstrators gathered to protest against the presidential visit.
The pontiff and the President talked in private for 15 minutes in the pope’s frescoed study before making addresses. Bush gave the pope the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest US award to a civilian.
As Bush arrived at the Vatican, some onlookers behind police cordons applauded while others whistled in disapproval and held up peace banners.
The pope, who has Parkinson’s disease and had difficulty pronouncing his words, said the meeting “takes place at a moment of great concern for the continuing situation of grave unrest in West Asia, both in Iraq and in the Holy Land”.
But the pope reserved his toughest words for the scandal over US troops’ abuse of Iraqi prisoners. “In the past few weeks other deplorable events have come to light which have troubled the civic and religious conscience of all and made more difficult a serene and resolute commitment to shared human values,” he said. “In the absence of such a commitment, neither war nor terrorism will ever be overcome.”
Last week the pope condemned torture as an intolerable affront to human dignity. The White House said Bush took no offence from the pope’s remarks.
“I’m sure he’s concerned about those (prison) abuses. The President is as well. That’s why we’re taking a systemic look at the prison system and holding people responsible,” a spokesman said. Bush said his government would work for “human liberty and human dignity”.
While Bush and the pope talked peace in the Vatican today, a military aide held a bulky black attache case containing the codes the US President would need in order to launch a nuclear war.
It is known as “the football”. It has been all over the world and today it entered the hallowed halls of the Vatican. It was never very far from the President. While he and the pope were speaking alone in the pontiff’s private study, it was in the next room.
And when Bush awarded the pope the Presidential Medal of Freedom, it rested on the shiny marble floor between the firm legs of Major Paul Montanus of the US Marine Corps.