VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict gave George W. Bush an unprecedented welcome in the tranquility of the Vatican Gardens on Friday before the U.S. president resumed his campaign to rally European support for sanctions against Iran.
Under tight security, Bush was driven from the bustle of Rome into the idyllic setting. As birds chirped, the two entered a restored medieval tower and held 30 minutes of private talks.
“Such an honor, such an honor,” Bush said to the pope.
After the meeting in the tower, they stood on a terrace to take in the view of 44 hectares (108 acres) of manicured gardens, buildings, ancient walls and St Peter’s Basilica that make up Vatican City.
Bush asked: “How big is it?” A Vatican aide responded: “Not quite as big as Texas.” Bush then said: “Yes but more important ... this is spectacular.”
The talks in the tower, walk in the gardens and a performance by the Sistine Choir as the two sat on wooden lawn chairs were a break with normal protocol.
Bush’s meeting with the pope was the first time the pontiff hosted a visiting head of state elsewhere than in his private study. It was meant to repay Bush for the warm White House lawn reception the pope got in April on his 81st birthday.
Later, Bush flew to Paris as he continued his European tour. He was due to give a speech at the seat of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and meet French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Security around the Vatican was tight, with police lining the streets, anti-terrorist sharpshooters in nearby buildings and even secondary streets closed off in case Bush had to leave the area in an emergency via an alternative route.
The head of Vatican security, Domenico Giani, told the Holy See’s newspaper this week that two new permanent anti-terrorism units had been set up in the mini-state and would be working together with Italian and American security during the visit.
Benedict’s predecessor John Paul II had a led a campaign against the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 but the president and the pontiff see eye-to-eye on many moral issues, such as abortion, gay marriage and embryonic stem cell research.
A Vatican statement said the two discussed the “defense of fundamental moral values” as well as the Middle East and a commitment to peace in the Holy Land, globalization, and the world food crisis.
A White House spokeswoman said Bush and Benedict had “established a good relationship” enabling them to talk on a range of issues including AIDS, Africa and combating poverty.
La Repubblica newspaper said not everyone in the Vatican was happy to see Benedict giving Bush special treatment. It quoted unnamed monsignors recalling that Bush did not heed the late John Paul’s warnings against invading Iraq.
But one Vatican official close to the pope told Reuters early on Friday: “The pope is doing this because he is a gentleman. That’s the long and short of it.”
Condemned by many Europeans for the war in Iraq, Bush is seeking a diplomatic solution to a standoff with Tehran over its nuclear energy program while also making it clear that military options remain on the table.
From the Vatican, Bush headed to the airport to leave for Paris, where he will address the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and where he is expected to renew his call to prevent Tehran from obtaining a nuclear bomb and seek support for democracy in the Middle East.
To rally support for his Iran policy, Bush will see his close friend Sarkozy on Friday and Saturday, followed by a stopover in London on Sunday and Monday where he will confer with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
“All of us ... need to be sending the same message to the Iranians, which is verifiably suspend your enrichment program or else you will face further sanctions and further isolation,” Bush said after meeting Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi.
In Tehran, leading cleric Ayatollah Mohammed Emami-Kashani, accused Bush and the United States of “setting the whole world on fire” with his campaign against Iran.
“What Iran is doing is merely scientific and economic work. What Iran is doing has got only industrial and peaceful purposes,” he said at Friday prayers broadcast on state radio.
Writing by Philip Pullella; additional reporting by Eleanor Biles in Rome and Hashem Kalantari in Tehran; Edited by Alison Williams