ROME (Reuters) - Demonstrators clashed with police in central Rome on Saturday as U.S. President George W. Bush wound up a visit to Pope Benedict and Italian leaders.
Hours after Bush had discussed Middle East peace with Pope Benedict and was wrapping up meetings with Italian politicians, police in riot gear charged and fired tear gas at demonstrators who had thrown bottles at them in Rome’s historic centre.
The protestors, some wearing motorcycle helmets and bandanas to cover their faces, shattered a window of a bank and overturned outdoor dining tables on some of Rome’s most famous streets.
Several policemen and demonstrators were injured.
Tear gas wafted into Rome’s historic Piazza Navona, which had been the scene of a demonstration that was for the most part peaceful. Anti-American graffiti was spray-painted on some statues and restaurants and shopkeepers lowered their shutters.
The incident was far from where Bush was staying at the U.S. ambassador’s residence in another quarter of the city and on the other side of the Tiber River from the Vatican.
The highlight of Bush’s day was his first-ever meeting with Benedict, a fellow religious conservative, in the Vatican.
Bush later said he felt “awe” in the presence of the Pope, who urged him to seek “regional and negotiated” solutions to Middle East conflicts like Iraq.
Addressing the 80-year-old Roman Catholic leader as “sir” instead of the usual honorific “Your Holiness”, Bush heard the Pope’s concerns about the Middle East and the plight of Christians in Iraq.
Bush, who leaves for Albania on Sunday, told him of his government’s efforts to combat AIDS and malaria in Africa and hunger and poverty.
He told the Pope in front of reporters about what he called “the very strong AIDS initiative” at the Group of Eight summit this week, which pledged $60 billion to fight diseases ravaging Africa — although much of that was made up of existing pledges.
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 desk in his private study.
The two men see eye-to-eye on ethical issues like abortion and euthanasia but differ on the war in Iraq, which Benedict’s predecessor, John Paul II, tried hard to avert.
When the Pope mentioned Bush had come from the G8 summit, Bush said: “I did — your old country — and it was successful ... A lot of different opinions, but it was good.”
Asked if his dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin, closely watched because of a number of sharp disagreements between Russia and the West, had been good, Bush responded with a smile as reporters were being ushered out of the room.
“I’ll tell you in a minute,” he said.
Additional reporting by Gavin Jones, Stephen Brown, Toby Zakaria, Caren Bohan, Roberto Landucci, Antonella Ciancio and Philip Pullella