VATICAN CITY (AFP) — US President George W. Bush was treated on Friday to a special audience with Pope Benedict XVI just two months after the White House laid on a lavish birthday party for the pontiff.
The two met in the Vatican's medieval Saint John's Tower and strolled through the secluded Vatican Gardens, a walled enclave that has been a place of quiet meditation for popes since the 13th century.
The "special protocol" -- papal audiences are normally held in the pontiff's private library -- was followed "to respond to the cordiality of the welcome received by the Supreme Pontiff" in April, the Vatican said.
The US leader, who took off for Paris shortly afterward, could be heard exclaiming "what an honour" as he clasped the pontiff's hands at the start of the encounter, their third in little over a year.
White House press secretary Dana Perino told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Paris: "The president had a wonderful meeting with the pope. ... They have formed a strong and personal bond."
She added: "The president said he was very honoured to be taken on a walk through the gardens that the pope walks through every evening."
Pope Benedict celebrated his 81st birthday in grand style at the White House on April 16, when he was greeted with a 21-gun salute and 13,500 well-wishers filled the South Lawn.
First Lady Laura Bush said en route to Paris that she thought Benedict "was really very moved by the outpouring of warmth from the American people, both Catholics and non-Catholics, who revere the pope as someone with unquestionable moral authority."
On Friday, Benedict and Bush discussed the Middle East peace process, the food crisis and other international issues, the Vatican said.
The pontiff also thanked Bush for his "commitment in defence of fundamental moral values," it said.
In the traditional exchange of gifts, each offered the other a framed photograph of the pair, who first met at the Vatican in early June 2007.
Bush, whose relations with pope John Paul II were strained because of the US-led invasion of Iraq, feels closer to Benedict, who appreciates the religious fervour of the president, a born-again Protestant.
The two see eye to eye on key social issues, as both are staunch opponents of same-sex marriage, abortion and embryonic stem-cell research, though they diverge notably on the death penalty.
Pope Benedict has also voiced his concerns for the plight of Christians in Iraq and over harsh CIA interrogation methods.
The Italian press has been rife with speculation that Bush may convert to Catholicism as his brother, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, did years ago, as well as former British prime minister Tony Blair. The latter two men are both married to Roman Catholics.
Bush had talks in Rome on Thursday with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on the third leg of his farewell tour of Europe, which has taken him to Slovenia and Germany and will end with stops in France and Britain.
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