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Argentina’s president, Pope Francis meet face to face in Rome

By AFP - Feb 12,2024 - Last updated at Feb 12,2024

This handout photograph taken on Sunday and released by the Vatican press office, Vatican Media, shows Pope Francis (right) greeting Argentine President Javier Milei at the Vatican (AFP photo)

VATICAN CITY — Argentina’s top political and religious leaders — President Javier Milei and Pope Francis — met for the first time on Sunday in Rome, amid the explosive economic situation in their native country.

The two men with sharply diverging views on how to eradicate the poverty gripping Argentina met briefly before and after a Papal mass, during the 53-year-old economist’s first official visit to Rome as president.

Milei, a libertarian and free-market champion who once called the 87-year-old Pope from Buenos Aires an “imbecile” who “promotes communism”, attended the ceremony at St Peter’s Basilica to canonise Argentina’s first female saint.

Following the mass, Francis, in a wheelchair, stopped briefly to shake hands and share a few words with Milei amid the congregation, who gave the pontiff a hug.

The Vatican said they also met briefly beforehand.

An official audience comes on Monday, when Milei also plans to meet with Italian President Sergio Mattarella and Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.

The meeting between the two men comes amid major political uncertainty in Argentina, where newcomer Milei is engaged in a controversial, massive deregulation of Argentina’s economy by presidential decree.

Milei and Francis radically disagree over how to tackle poverty, which affects 40 per cent of the population of Argentina, where inflation soars over 200 per cent.

Francis has railed throughout his papacy against the inequalities generated by the free markets, calling for protection of the most vulnerable in society.

Milei, who calls himself an “anarcho-capitalist”, won a resounding election victory in October on a wave of anger by Argentines furious with decades of economic crisis.

Alternately labelled far-right, anti-establishment or libertarian, Milei has devalued the peso, cut state subsidies and scrapped hundreds of rules in deregulation efforts.

But the passage of his reform package hit a roadblock on Tuesday when parliament sent it back to committee for a rewrite.

Milei, on a visit to Israel, responded to the first crisis of his presidency by lashing out at opponents, calling them “criminals” and “traitors”.


Invitation home 


Relations between Milei and the Pope have improved after the former Jorge Bergoglio congratulated the president on his election.

Milei in turn invited Francis to pay a visit to Argentina, to which the Pontiff has not returned since becoming Pope in 2013.

Last year, Milei accused the Pope of interfering in politics, and failing to condemn dictators such as Cuba’s Fidel Castro.

But the Pope has brushed off the criticism as rhetoric in the heat of an election campaign.

On Sunday, Milei sat with his entourage during the mass to canonise 18th century missionary Mama Antula, considered a human-rights pioneer from when Argentina was a Spanish colony.

Like Francis, the consecrated Jesuit laywoman born Maria Antonia de Paz y Figueroa and beatified in 2016 dedicated herself to marginalised communities.

While in Israel, Milei announced moves to shift his country’s embassy to Jerusalem -- sparking delight from his hosts but anger from Hamas.

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