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Pope meets Hollande amid affair reports

Pontiff, French president discuss immigration, human rights

24 January, 18:41
Pope meets Hollande amid affair reports (By Sandra Cordon) (ANSA) - Vatican City, January 24 - A wide range of issues, from poverty and development to bioethics, were on the table, but personal matters were likely not discussed when Pope Francis met with French President Francois Hollande on Friday.

The French president arrived without his official partner Valérie Trierweiler after a series of media reports suggested he has been having a love affair with a French actress.

Trierweiler was recently released from hospital after reportedly taking "one pill too many" when magazine Closer ran photos and articles detailing the president's alleged love affair with Julie Gayet.

The meeting inside the Vatican focused on questions of international stability, religious protection and the preservation of human rights.

Discussions were described as "cordial" between the leaders, who met for 35 minutes with the help of an interpreter, the Vatican said in a statement.

In their conversation, the pair discussed relations between the Holy See and France "and reaffirmed their mutual commitment to maintain a regular dialogue...and to work constructively on issues of common interest".

That includes "defence and promotion of the dignity of the human person" as well as international concerns including conflicts in the Middle East and parts of Africa. Earlier, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio - who took the name Francis, or Francois in French, when he was elected pope last year - joked that he and Hollande now shared a name.

"This is your patron too," the pope said when Hollande gave him a book about St Francis of Assisi.

The pope gave Hollande a large pontifical medallion. The exchange of gifts and warm handshakes came after 35 minutes of talks with the help of an interpreter. They likely also did not discuss concerns raised in France by the country's conservative Catholics about Hollande's personal difficulties.

More than 100,000 people had signed a petition created by a Catholic organization calling on the pontiff to express to the French president "the profound malaise and growing concern of many French Catholics," BBC reported on its website.

Outside his meetings at the Vatican, Hollande said that he "confirmed to the pontiff that France defends religious freedom everywhere".

"It is the homeland of human rights and freedom of conscience," said Hollande.

"We share the same determination against all anti-religious acts that can be committed, without distinction, most of all in places of worship," added Hollande, whose visit was marred by a bomb threat at the Vatican before he arrived.

While that threat proved unfounded, an explosion near offices of a foundation linked to France's embassy to the Holy See in central Rome destroyed several cars. No one was injured and Italian police are probing the possibility that anarchists were behind the explosion.

The French president also discussed the situation in Syria with the pontiff and asked him to receive a delegation of the Syrian opposition coalition. Talks aimed at ending the three-year-old Syrian conflict are now under way in Switzerland.

"We need to do everything to stop the fighting and dispatch humanitarian aid," said Hollande.