VATICAN CITY -- With Italians converging on Rome to decry the war in Iraq, President Bush received a more subtle but pointed message yesterday about America's Middle East policy in his first meeting with Pope Benedict XVI.
Pope Benedict urged the U.S. president to pursue a "regional and negotiated" solution to the violent crises engulfing the Middle East, a Vatican statement said, and voiced alarm about "the worrying situation in Iraq" and the plight of the besieged and dwindling community of Christians there.
Bush later said he sought to reassure the leader of the world's largest Christian faith about the possibilities for peace. After his 31-minute private meeting with the pope, a man with whom he shares conservative religious beliefs, the president said, "I was in awe, and it was a moving experience."
On a six-nation swing through Europe, Bush also held talks with Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, whose center-left government has clashed frequently with Washington.
In fact, Italy is home to the most anti-American sentiment of any of the countries that Bush has chosen to visit after a summit in Germany of leading industrialized countries - as noisy protest rallies yesterday afternoon demonstrated.
Bush probably saw political value in appearing with the pope, even though he knew to expect admonishment.
Any photograph of the president and Pope Benedict is a reminder of areas they agree on, such as their shared opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, and thus serves as a quiet papal blessing that reinforces Republican Party efforts to reach out to Roman Catholic voters in the United States.
In foreign policy, however, their differences emerge. Pope Benedict has been vocal in his opposition to bloodshed in the Middle East, singling out Iraq on Easter: "Nothing positive comes from Iraq, torn apart by continual slaughter as the civil population flees."
By urging Bush to seek a negotiated solution, the pope might have been condemning, however gently, the military option pursued by this U.S. administration in Iraq, or the hands-off approach taken until recently in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Still, Bush was spared the more public rebuke he experienced three years ago when Pope John Paul II, after receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Bush, launched into a condemnation of the "deplorable" abuses of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison.
True to his style of governance, Pope Benedict did not use Bush's presence to make public remarks of substance. Instead, he chose to deliver his message in private. During a news conference with Prodi, Bush was asked whether he and the pope talked about the concept of a "just war."
The Vatican considered the war in Afghanistan to be justified, but not the one in Iraq. Bush said the topic was not discussed but that the pope did express his "deep concern" that the "society evolving in Iraq would not tolerate Christians."
Christians in Iraq, like other communities, have been devastated by violence, kidnappings and murder; churches are emptying, either having been bombed or out of fear. Tens of thousands have fled the country. Another Iraqi priest and three deacons of the Chaldean Catholic Church were killed last week.
Bush and Prodi, after a working lunch at the prime minister's Palazzo Chigi, took pains to portray relations between Washington and Rome as friendly and free of serious bilateral disputes, pointing to several areas of cooperation, including Lebanon and Kosovo.
Security throughout Bush's 34-hour stay in Rome has been extensive. A reported 10,000 police were deployed in Rome yesterday. Police in patrol boats plied the Tiber River, which bisects the city, and a fleet of helicopters thumped overhead all day long.
Tracy Wilkinson and James Gerstenzang write for the Los Angeles Times.