VATICAN CITY (VIA PLDT), JUNE 5, 2007 (STAR) By Paolo Romero - President Arroyo met yesterday with Pope Benedict XVI and obtained his blessing for Filipinos after assuring him of the country’s adherence to human rights amid the international outrage over the unabated killings of journalists and activists.

The President met with the Pope for 11 minutes in his private library at the Apostolic Palace.

Apparently heartened by Mrs. Arroyo’s gesture, Benedict praised the Philippines for its strong Catholic faith. Mrs. Arroyo was heard softly saying in reply, “We are not just the only Catholic nation (in Asia), but the most devout as well.” The tiny East Timor is also predominantly Catholic.

The President and her 14-man party entered the San Damaso courtyard of the Apostolic Palace at 11 a.m. and were met by bishop Michael Harvey, prefect of the papal household, and by a contingent of Swiss guards.

She was escorted to the 2nd floor and given a brief tour of 11 magnificent rooms of various religious themes, including the Sala Dei Papi.

The Holy Father welcomed Mrs. Arroyo at the Sala del Tronetto, just outside the public library. Benedict said “welcome” and clasped her hands. Mrs. Arroyo whispered, “Your Holiness,” bowed her head and kissed the Pope’s ring.

Benedict gave Mrs. Arroyo a Medal of the Pontificate. She gave him an image of the Sto. Niño Dormiedo, made of elephant ivory with gold trimmings.

The ladies in Mrs. Arroyo’s delegation were given rosaries while the men received medallions.

Mrs. Arroyo arrived in Rome with a lean delegation Saturday to kick off her European sojourn that includes Portugal.

At St. Peter’s Square on Sunday, she joined three other heads of state in witnessing – amid heavy rains – the canonization ceremonies for four new Catholic saints.

Declared saints were three priests—Giorgio Preca from Malta, Szymon Lipnicy from Poland, John Andrew Houben, representing the Netherlands and Ireland, and one nun, Marie Eugenie De Jesus Milleret from France.

Also at the ceremonies were Ireland’s President Mary MacAleese, Malta’s President Edward Fenech Adami, and Poland’s President Lech Kaczynski. Officials said her attendance was significant because the Philippines is the only predominantly Roman Catholic nation in Asia.

Mrs. Arroyo’s meeting yesterday with Pope Benedict was her second with the Roman Pontiff since he became the head of the world’s more than 1.1 billion Catholics in 2005. Her previous meeting with the Pope was in June last year.

Mrs. Arroyo’s private audience with the Pope took place at 11 a.m. (5 p.m. Manila time) at the Sala del Tronetto on the second floor of the Apostolic Palace.

This was followed by another meeting just outside the Pope’s room where the President introduced members of her delegation that included Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo, Ambassador Marciano Paynor, chief of presidential protocol; Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago, and presidential daughter-in-law Angela Montenegro-Arroyo, and presidential adviser for ecclesiastical affairs Nena Valdez.

After Mrs. Arroyo’s audience with Benedict XVI, she met with Vatican Secretary of State Tarcisio Cardinal Bertone for another 30 minutes.

Romulo and Paynor, in separate interviews, said the President invited the Roman pontiff to visit the Philippines this year or next.

“We (Philippines) are an important asset of the Church in that part of the world. The President discussed our economic progress and some of our problems like the unexplained killings,” Paynor told reporters.

He said Mrs. Arroyo was to explain to the Pope that communist rebels were responsible for many of the unexplained killings in the country.

Romulo said Mrs. Arroyo had to explain the issue of political killings because “they (world leaders) are asking for it.”

“It’s good for our side and she has explained these things very well,” referring to her talks with other world leaders on the matter.

During her visit to Tokyo two weeks ago, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed concern over the killings, while the same issue was raised during her separate bilateral talks with New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark in Wellington and with Australian Prime Minister John Howard in Canberra last week.

Australia’s and New Zealand’s aid program for the Philippines involve training police and military personnel to enforce laws without violating human rights.

Meanwhile, President Arroyo announced Sunday the reduction of passport and other fees being charged to Filipino workers in Italy.

In her speech at the gathering of the Filipino community at the Fontifico Collegio Filipino, Mrs. Arroyo also announced that Philippine driver’s license held by Filipino workers here will be recognized by the Italian government and converted for local use.

“You (Filipino workers) are heroes because of your sacrifices and hard work for your families and our country,” Mrs. Arroyo told a cheering crowd of around 500 Filipinos.

“It will now be easy for Filipinos to live and work in Italy,” she said.

“This (driver’s license conversion) will open new opportunities for work in the transportation sector.”

From 65 euros, passport fees will be reduced to 50 euros, while fees for affidavit, certification and notarials were reduced from 32.50 euros to 25 euros.

To Portugal

At 1 p.m., the presidential party proceeded to the Ciampino Airport to take the chartered Philippine Airlines flight to Lisbon, Portugal for a religious pilgrimage to Fatima and a meeting with Portuguese President Anibal Antonio Cavaco Silva.

She was scheduled to arrive in Lisbon at around 3:10 p.m. (10 p.m. Manila time). Members of the presidential party were to be billeted at Lisbon’s The Ritz Hotel.

Her talks with Cavaco Silva would likely focus on possible trade and investment opportunities for the Philippines and on strengthening bilateral and regional ties.

Today, she is scheduled to attend Mass at the Basilica of St. Anthony in Lisbon at 9 a.m. (4 p.m. Manila time).

Before noon, she will meet with Cavaco Silva to be followed by a state luncheon hosted in her honor.

Officials said Mrs. Arroyo is also scheduled to meet with leaders of the Portuguese parliament.

Romulo told accompanying reporters in Rome that Mrs. Arroyo’s visit was significant as the Philippines currently chairs the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) while Portugal is expected to assume the presidency of the European Union this year.

He noted such a meeting “probably will be the first of its kind in a long, long time.”

“We are the chair of the ASEAN so we have to meet with foreign leaders and Portugal is one of the leaders of EU, and of course we always want trade and investment from other countries,” he said.

He also noted that Portugal has a contingent in the peacekeeping force in Timor Leste, where the Philippines is also heavily involved.

“Since we live in this part of the world, it’s important that we develop our relations so that it will benefit our country in trade and cultural exchanges,” Romulo said.

The presidential party will depart Lisbon at 3 p.m. for Chengdu and Chonquing province in China on an official visit.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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