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Bush given rare access to Vatican Gardens

Pope Benedict XVI took President Bush on a rare stroll through the lush grounds of the Vatican Gardens on Friday, stopping at a grotto where the pontiff prays daily.
Image: George W. Bush, Pope Benedict XVI
President Bush walks with Pope Benedict XVI to the Lourdes Grotto at the Vatican on Friday.Evan Vucci / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Pope Benedict XVI took President Bush on a rare stroll through the lush grounds of the Vatican Gardens on Friday, stopping at a grotto where the pontiff prays daily.

"Your eminence, you're looking good," Bush told the pope shortly after arriving at the Vatican, launching the leaders' third visit together.

Normally, VIPs are received in the pope's library in the Apostolic Palace. That is where Bush had his first meeting with Benedict in June 2007.

But in a gesture of appreciation for the hearty welcome Bush gave him in Washington in April, Benedict welcomed the president and first lady Laura Bush near St. John's Tower in the lush Vatican Gardens.

On a brief tour, Benedict and Bush peered out from a tower balcony, and the president seemed awed by what he saw. The pope pointed out St. Peter's dome as he showed Bush the view.

"This is fantastic up here," Bush said. "Thank you so much for showing me this."

White House press secretary Dana Perino said the two leaders have the kind of relationship that allows them to speak frankly. They discussed such issues as human rights, HIV and AIDS in Africa, and poverty around the world, she said.

Gift exchange
After their private meeting ended, Bush and Benedict posed for official photographs and exchanged gifts.

Bush and the pope then strolled through the gardens to see the Lourdes Grotto, which was donated to Pope Leo XIII at the turn of the century by French Catholics. Bush and Benedict sat in wooden patio-style chairs admiring the grotto as Mrs. Bush rejoined them.

Sirens in the city and the whirring of a helicopter overheard broke the silence in the placid scene — as did noisy parrots that flew right over the heads of the Bushes and the pontiff. Those sounds were soon drowned out by the performance of a young boys' choir.

Bush and the first lady personally thanked the beaming children when they finished singing.

Security was tight throughout Bush's two-day stay in Rome. The president spent about an hour at the Vatican. As he left, two helicopters tracked his motorcade as it sped along a freeway on its way to the airport.

A statement by the Vatican after Bush's visit said that the pope had "renewed his gratitude for the warm and special reception he received in the United States of America and at the White House in April, and for the commitment in defense of the fundamental moral values." The two leaders talked about relations between the U.S. and Europe, globalization, the world food crisis and international trade, among other topics, the Vatican said.

Common ground
Bush and Benedict share much common ground, particularly in opposing abortion, gay marriage and embryonic stem cell research. But they disagree on other issues, including the war in Iraq, the death penalty and the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.

Benedict's journey to the United States will be best remembered for his repeated comments about the shame of the church's clergy sexual abuse crisis. He held a dramatic private meeting with five abuse victims from the scandal-scarred Boston Archdiocese.

Bush, after his visit to the Vatican, flew to France where he was giving a speech in Paris to highlight a rebound in trans-Atlantic relations, which were fractured over the war in Iraq. He is also commemorating the 60th anniversary of the start of the Marshall Plan, the massive U.S. aid program to rebuild Europe after World War II.

Bush's vision of a new era of trans-Atlantic relations will last at least seven more months.

The next U.S. president will determine the tenor of future U.S.-European relations, but until then Bush will continue to capitalize on the election of Europe's newest powerbrokers, some of whom are less critical of the war in Iraq than their predecessors.

Bush said he is seeing the outlines of a "new era of trans-Atlantic unity" in the faces of Europe's current leaders like Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

"I see a commitment to a powerful and purposeful Europe that advances the values of liberty within its borders and beyond," Bush was to say in the speech Friday in Paris. "And when the time comes to welcome a new American president next January, I will be pleased to report to him that the relationship between the United States and Europe is the broadest and most vibrant it has ever been."

A few short years ago that was not the case. Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and former French President Jacques Chirac clashed with Bush over the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Two of Bush's allies, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and ex-Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, paid a political price for backing Bush on the war, which fractured trans-Atlantic ties.

Bush has spent his second term successfully mending them.