ROME (Reuters) - “We believe that war is the mother of all poverty”.
That is the mantra President George W. Bush heard on Saturday from Andrea Riccardi, founder of a peace group that has been nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Bush met for about an hour at the U.S. embassy with members of the Sant’Egidio religious community, a group of lay volunteers who work with the poor in some 70 countries.
The group, which is opposed to the U.S.-led war in Iraq, were surprised when they were told Bush wanted to meet them during his visit to Rome.
Participants at the meeting, part of which was closed to the media, said Bush was very interested in their work and sought their opinion on whether U.S. aid money went to the people it was intended for.
“We told him we think that funds for aid should be more readily available to organizations like ours, to be able to get money with less bureaucracy,” the group’s president, Marco Impagliazzo, told a news conference afterwards.
Bush thanked the members of the group for being members of what he called “the international army of compassion”, adding: “I’m proud of your organization and I thank all members of your organization for being such loving souls.”
The group did not discuss Iraq with Bush except to mention the problems of minority Christians. Nor did they bring up their total opposition to capital punishment, which Bush supports.
The president told them he was committed to increasing U.S. funds for AIDS in Africa, where Sant’Egidio runs successful programs to distribute medication which blocks pregnant women who are HIV positive from transmitting the virus to newborns.
Bush had been due to attend a round-table discussion at the group’s headquarters in the Trastevere neighborhood, made up of narrow, winding alleys. But it was moved to the embassy for security reasons.
The Sant’Egidio community is involved in myriad social activities. Besides AIDS prevention programs in Africa, they run soup kitchens and shelters for the homeless and promote Christian-Muslim dialogue.
The group achieved international recognition in 1992 when they brokered an accord between the Mozambique government and Frelimo guerrillas, ending a 16-year civil war.
They earned the nickname “the U.N. of Trastevere” after succeeding where others had failed.
Impagliazzo said he reminded Bush that in the early 1990s “we were the negotiators and you (the United States) were the observers (at the Mozambique peace talks)”.
He said Bush laughed.