VATICAN CITY -
Pope John Paul II admonished US President George W. Bush over Iraq, telling him the situation in the occupied country should be "normalized as quickly as possible" with the help of the international community and the United Nations.
The pope, who told Bush his visit to Europe comes at a time of "great concern" over unrest in the Middle East, also implicitly condemned the recently revealed abuse of Iraqi prisoners by US soldiers in Iraq.
"In the past few weeks other deplorable events have come to light which have troubled the civil and religious conscience of all, and made more difficult a serene and resolute commitment to shared human values," the head of the Roman Catholic Church said.
In the absence of such a commitment, "neither war nor terrorism will ever be overcome," warned John Paul II.
Despite a warm greeting at the Vatican for Bush and his large entourage, Friday's meeting did little to blunt the sharp differences between the White House and the Holy See over Iraq.
John Paul II has been one of the staunchest critics of Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq.
"It is the evident desire of everyone that this situation now be normalized as quickly as possible with the active participation of the international community and in particular, the United Nations Organisation, in order to ensure a speedy return of Iraq's sovereignty, in conditions of security for all its people," the 84-year-old said in a haltingly-read statement.
In another allusion to differences over Iraq, the pope said that a "fuller and deeper understanding" between Europe and the United States "would surely play a decisive role" in resolving the problems he had mentioned.
Bush, describing John Paul II as "a devoted servant of God who has championed the cause of the poor", presented the pope with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, his country's highest civilian award.
Bush praised John Paul's "moral conviction".
"He has given courage to others to be not afraid in overcoming injustice and oppression. His principled stand for peace and freedom has inspired millions and helped to overcome communism and tyranny," said the president.
According to the White House, recipients of the medal are "those who have made outstanding contributions to the security of the United States or to world peace, or those who have made a significant public or private accomplishment".
Among its approximately 400 previous recipients was Pope John XXIII.
The president had earlier spent around 15 minutes with John Paul II in his private library at the Vatican, stooping to shake hands with him when he entered.
At the end of their private discussions, they posed for photographs with the president and his wife Laura flanking the pope. Bush then held a brief meeting with Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano.
US Secretary of State Colin Powell was among the large presidential delegation which rolled through the Vatican gates shortly after noon.
They were greeted in the Saint Damasus courtyard inside the world's smallest state by the Prefect of the Papal Household, Bishop James Harvey, and a line-up of the Swiss Guard.
© Copyright 2004 AFP