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POSTED: 3:17 p.m. EDT, June 9, 2007
VATICAN CITY (CNN) — George W. Bush said on Saturday he felt awe in the presence of Pope Benedict XVI, who urged the U.S. president to seek “regional and negotiated” solutions to Middle East conflicts like Iraq.
“I was talking to a very smart, loving man,” Bush said of his first talks with Benedict since he became pope in 2005.
“After six-and-a-half years of being a president … I’ve been to some unusual places and met some interesting people, and I was in awe,” Bush told a joint news conference in Rome with Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi. “It was a moving experience for me.”
The pope expressed to Bush a “deep concern” about Christians living in Muslim-majority Iraq.
“He was concerned that the society that was evolving would not tolerate the Christian religion, and I assured him we were working hard to make sure that people lived up to the constitution — that modern constitution voted on by the people from different walks of life and different attitudes,” Bush said.
Bush said they also discussed world hunger, HIV/AIDS, malaria and immigration in the United States. Benedict was watching the U.S. immigration debate intently, Bush said.
A Vatican statement said Benedict and Bush had discussed the Middle East and the Holy See’s “hope for a regional and negotiated solution to the conflicts that afflict that region.”
“It’s good to be with you, sir,” Bush said as he sat before the pontiff’s private desk in the Vatican.
During the news conference, Bush and Prodi discussed what Prodi described as the “success” of the G8 summit in Germany, which ended Friday.
“There is an interdependence here … a need to work together,” the Italian prime minister said of the meeting.
In particular, Prodi lauded the countries’ discussions on global warming.
Although the eight industrialized nations — United States, Canada, France, Italy, Japan, Russia, Germany and Britain — did not set emission-reduction targets, they agreed to “seriously consider” goals to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2050.
There is a “clear-cut will to move forward” on the issue of global warming, the prime minister said.
After the press conference, Bush said he planned to meet former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi for coffee.
Prodi beat out the more conservative Italian politician last year in a cliff-hanger election. Asked by a reporter why Bush was meeting with the former Italian leader, Bush said: “He is the opposition leader and he is a friend.”
After Italy, Bush will head to Albania.
The pope also asked Bush about his meeting in Germany with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has criticized a U.S. missile shield in Europe.
“The dialogue with Putin was also good?” the pope asked.
Bush, apparently looking at photographers and reporters who were about to be escorted from the room, replied, according to AP: “Umm. I’ll tell you in a minute.”
CNN’s Ed Henry reported that moving through Rome was difficult Saturday because of security barricades and other restrictions implemented in light of the large anti-war protests going on in the city, where about 10,000 police were on duty.
Later Saturday, protesters tried to walk down a blocked street and clashed with police, who used tear gas to disperse them. Police estimated there were 12,000 demonstrators in the area.
John Paul II vigorously opposed the war, which has been raised on occasion by Benedict. In his Easter message, Benedict said “nothing positive comes from Iraq, torn apart by continual slaughter as the civil population flees.”
The U.S. president’s arrival in Italy Friday coincided with the start of the trial of 33 people — including 26 Americans. It is the first trial in connection with extraordinary rendition, one of the most controversial aspects of Bush’s war on terrorism.