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ARGENTINA | 11-02-2024 09:13

Finally face-to-face: President Milei, Pope Francis meet at Vatican

Argentina's top political and religious leaders, President Javier Milei and Pope Francis, met for the first time Sunday in Rome ahead of tomorrow's private audience.

From insults to hugs – President Javier Milei met Pope Francis for the first time on Sunday in Rome, with the duo sharing smiles and an embrace.

Argentina's top political and religious leaders, who hold sharply diverging views on how to exit the economic crisis gripping their homeland, met briefly before and after a papal Mass in which Argentina’s first female saint was canonised.

Milei, a 53-year-old libertarian economist and free-market champion who once called the 87-year-old pope from Buenos Aires a “nefarious imbecile" who "promotes communism," attended the ceremony at St Peter's Basilica during his first official visit to Rome as president.

He stood up as the Argentine pontiff entered the basilica at the beginning of the service and knelt during the service at the appropriate times. 

Following the Mass, Francis, in a wheelchair, stopped briefly to shake hands and share a few words with a smiling Milei and his team amid the congregation.

The La Libertad Avanza leader gave a little bow and gave the pontiff a warm hug.

The Vatican later revealed they also met briefly beforehand. 

It was one of the images of the day, and the culmination of a hectic week for Milei, who began it in Jerusalem, praying emotionally at the Wailing Wall, and ended it with the collapse of his first major reform package.

 

Official audience

An official audience between Francis and Milei, which will be closely watched by analysts and onlookers, is set to take place on Monday, when Argentina’s leader also plans to meet with Italian President Sergio Mattarella and right-wing 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 more than 40 percent of the population of Argentina, where inflation is running at over 200 percent per annum.

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 – with all labels true to an extent – Milei has massively devalued the peso, slashed state subsidies and scrapped hundreds of rules in deregulation efforts.

But the passage of his reform package hit a roadblock in Congress last Tuesday when it was sent back to committee stage 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 cardinal formerly known as Jorge Bergoglio congratulated the president on his election win. 

Milei in turn invited Francis to pay a visit to Argentina – the pontiff has not returned to his homeland since becoming pope in 2013.

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

But the pope has since 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 María Antonia de Paz y Figueroa (1730 -1799) and beatified in 2016 dedicated herself to marginalised communities.

Speaking on Saturday to Radio Mitre, Milei praised the pontiff, describing him as “the most important Argentine in history” and said he hoped to have “a very fruitful dialogue.”

 

Israel visit

Milei arrived in Italy from Israel, where he announced moves to shift Argentina's Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and declare Hamas a terrorist organisation – sparking delight from his hosts but anger from the Palestinian group.

Milei is from a Catholic family but has expressed his fascination with Judaism and has been studying the Torah. Among others, he is travelling with his spiritual advisor, a rabbi.

The far-right leader said he is not yet considering converting to Judaism, saying some aspects would be "incompatible" with his position as president, such as the mandatory Saturday Sabbath day of rest.


– TIMES/AFP
 

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