24 January 2014, The Tablet

Embattled Hollande asks Pope to boost Syria peace talks

A small makeshift bomb exploded in central Rome early this morning, damaging a building belonging to a French religious establishment and three parked cars, just hours before a visit to Pope Francis by French President François Hollande.

It was not clear who was behind the explosion, which took place at 2.30am local time. St Peter’s Square was evacuated and helicopters circled in the skies above the Vatican before the meeting.

Later, just over an hour before Mr Hollande arrived to meet the Pope, the Carabinieri received an anonymous call claiming that two bombs had been planted in St Peter's Square, a Vatican spokesman said. But he said the police checked and it resulted in a hoax.

At this morning’s meeting, Mr Hollande said he had asked the Pope whether the Vatican could receive Syria's main opposition coalition, as the first talks between Syria's warring sides in Switzerland got off to a rough start, the news agency AFP reported. The Pope has urged parties at the talks to reach an agreement.

The president sidestepped possible protocol snags linked to his turbulent private life by bringing neither Valerie Trierweiler, his companion until recently seen as the “first lady” of France, nor his latest reported amour, actress Julie Gayet.

He and the Pope discussed global poverty and development, migration and the environment, and conflicts in the Middle East and in some regions of Africa.

Hollande said he and Francis had the "same concern" about the status of Christian minorities in the Middle East, and the risk of an interreligious conflict in the Central African Republic.

In a statement after the meeting the Vatican said that “in the context of the defence and the promotion of the dignity of the human person, various matters of current relevance were discussed, such as the family, bioethics, respect for religious communities and the protection of places of worship.”

In the last few days, more than 100,000 people signed a petition that was actively promoted on Catholic social media asking Pope Francis to express “the profound malaise and growing concern of many French Catholics” to Hollande when they met.

Mr Hollande, a dedicated secularist, angered French bishops and many Catholics by rushing through a law on same-sex marriage last year after only perfunctory consultations with faith leaders and several huge street protests by mostly Catholic groups.

The Socialist president announced this month that he planned a second controversial reform this year, the legalisation of assisted suicide for the terminally ill. The Catholic bishops’ conference and the French Protestant Federation have denounced the plan.

Apart from discussing euthanasia and gay marriage, they also wanted him to ask about a recent rise in the number of attacks on church buildings, which they say the Government has mostly ignored.

They criticised government efforts to make abortion more available and limit criticism of it, and complained about the education ministry’s plan to teach gender theory in state schools.

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