[PHOTO AT LEFT - President Arroyo receives blessings from Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican yesterday in this photo handout from Malacañang.]

VATICAN (VIA PLDT), June 27, 2006 (STAR) By Aurea Calica - Pope Benedict XVI hailed the Philippines yesterday for abolishing the death penalty during a meeting with President Arroyo here.

"Well done," the Pope told Mrs. Arroyo as she presented him a maroon booklet containing a copy of Republic Act No. 9346 repealing the 1994 death penalty law, which she signed last Saturday.

It was her second gift to the pontiff, the first one of which was a one-foot replica of the statue of the Nuestra Señora de Guia, or Our Lady of Guidance, the oldest Marian image in the Philippines enshrined in Ermita, Manila.

"These two gifts are the expressions of faith of the Filipino people," Mrs. Arroyo told the Pope.

Benedict gave Mrs. Arroyo a pat on the back when he expressed his satisfaction over the abolition of capital punishment.

Mrs. Arroyo arrived here at around 11 a.m. and was welcomed with a short ceremony by the Swiss Guards before meeting with Archbishop James Foley.

Benedict and Mrs. Arroyo first met at the room of Saints Peter and Paul. "Hello, Holy Father," she said.

"Welcome, it’s an honor," the Pope replied.

They then went inside the papal library and had a private talk for about 15 to 20 minutes.

During the exchange of gifts, the Pope gave Mrs. Arroyo a set of coins of the pontificate. He handed a red box to Mrs. Arroyo and explained the significance of each coin.

Mrs. Arroyo was accompanied by First Gentleman Jose Miguel "Mike" Arroyo, her brother-in-law, Negros Occidental Rep. Ignacio "Iggy" Arroyo, their son, Diosdado, and his wife, Maria Victoria Celina, and daughter Eva Victoria.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo, his wife Lovely Rose, Speaker Jose de Venecia’s wife Gina, the parents of Maria Victoria Celina — Rufino and Maria Aurelia — and the First Gentleman’s chief of staff Juris Soliman also accompanied Mrs. Arroyo.

Benedict gave the male members of the delegation a coin of the pontificate each and a rosary for the women, with a prayer booklet he made himself.

He also touched the face of two-year-old Eva Victoria.

Mrs. Arroyo told reporters later that she informed the Pope about her plans for the country, including changing the form of government and was encouraged by the words of the Holy Father.

She said she discussed everything she wanted to do in line with her theme of "life, solidarity and prosperity."

Mrs. Arroyo also met with the Cardinal of State Angelo Sodano at his office at Vatican Square.

She also offered prayers for the late Pope John Paul II, whose crypt she visited at the Saint Peter’s Basilica.

Last Saturday, on the eve of her trip to the Vatican, Mrs. Arroyo signed the law abolishing the death penalty, but vowed she would never relent in battling terrorists and criminals.

"In signing the abolition of the death penalty, we celebrate life in the most meaningful way, by gathering our institutions together to repeal the death penalty," she said.

Congress two weeks earlier had approved a bill abolishing capital punishment despite protests from anti-crime activists, who believe Mrs. Arroyo, a staunch Roman Catholic, rushed its approval to please the pope.

The Roman Catholic Church has been at the forefront of the clamor to abolish capital punishment.

Filipinos are divided on the death penalty issue. Supporters argue it is an effective deterrent against crime.

Opponents argue that the death penalty has been ineffective and claim that more efficient law enforcement and a speedy justice system are the solutions.

The 1987 Constitution abolished the death penalty, which the government of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos used to execute about a dozen people convicted of rape and drug charges.

However, the Charter also gave Congress the prerogative to restore it.

Fueled by public uproar over a series of high-profile murder cases, capital punishment was restored in 1994 for a number of "heinous" crimes such as rape, kidnapping-for-ransom, murder, drug trafficking and treason.

On April 16, Easter Sunday, Mrs. Arroyo commuted all death sentences to life and, weeks later, certified as "urgent" pending bills in the Senate and the House seeking the repeal of Republic Act 8177, which restored capital punishment in 1994.

The bill passed without dissent in the Senate on June 6 after a more contentious vote in the House of Representatives.

The lives of more than 1,200 death-row convicts — including at least 11 al-Qaeda-linked militants — will be spared due to the abolition of capital punishment.

Seven convicts were put to death between 1999 and 2000 until President Joseph Estrada declared a moratorium on executions amid pressure from the Catholic Church and rights groups. A devout Catholic, Mrs. Arroyo continued the moratorium. tina Mendez

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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