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ARGENTINA | 31-01-2020 10:08

President Fernández meets with Pope Francis at the Vatican

President and pontiff speak for about 45 minutes in Francis' private library, as Frente de Todos leader's first stop on European tour.

Pope Francis chatted privately President Alberto Fernández at the Vatican on Friday morning, as the two Argentine leaders shared a meeting lasting less than an hour.

Fernández and Francis, the first pope from Latin America, spoke for about 45 minutes. The two men last met informally in August, at the pope's residence hotel in Vatican City. That was two months before Fernández, a left-leaning Peronist, was elected Argentina's president. 

"Your Holiness, what a pleasure to see you," said Fernandez upon entering the pontiff's private library at the Apostolic Palace at the Holy See.

"Welcome", responded the pope, gesturing for him to enter and jokingly referring to his guest, making his first European tour since his election in December, as "altar boy".

The pair, who have known each other for many years, chatted animatedly as they addressed a range of social and political issues including how to help Argentina address its foreign debt mountain, a priority of the Fernández administration.

Rome was the first stop for the president on a European tour, during which he will meet the leaders of Italy, Germany, Spain and France. 

The Vatican didn't initially provide details of the meeting, including whether the Argentine leader had invited Francis to visit Argentina.

The pontiff, formerly known as Jorge Bergolio, hasn't returned to his homeland since 2013, when he came to Rome as archbishop of Buenos Aires to elect the Catholic Church's next pope. That conclave of cardinals chose him to be pontiff. While Francis has since visited other South American countries as pope, he hasn't been back to Argentina at all.

Accompanying Fernández and joining him after the private part of the pope-president meeting was the First Lady Fabiola Yáñez and a host of other officials, including Foreign Minister Felipe Solá. 

At one point, Fernández handed the pope a pen to sign a red-leather bound volume of some of Francis' writings. Francis wrote some words in the volume before handing it back to the president.

Yáñez and Francis chatted for a couple of minutes while the president stood by. She saw Francis last month at the inauguration at the Vatican of an educational foundation that the pope wanted established.

"He is a moral leader in the world. I thank him very much [for the meeting], he is a role model," Fernández said before meeting the pontiff. 

After his arrival on Thursday in the Italian capital, the Frente de Todos met with the director of the World Food Programme at the headquarters of the United Nations entity, for discussions on the president's 'Plan Against Hunger' scheme.

"It was an honour to speak with President Alberto Fernández and First Lady Fabiola Yáñez. We strongly support their commitment and work to end hunger and malnutrition. Thank you for the visit and for the great discussion!" said WFP director David Beasley in a tweet.

Debt talks

Having inherited an economic crisis that began 18 months ago with a currency collapse, Fernández is aiming to renegotiate repayments of US$44 billion borrowed from the International Monetary Fund.

The sum is a sizeable part of Argentina's US$335-billion external debt, which amounts to over 90 percent of its GDP while the country is also tackling around 40 percent poverty.

"They examined the country's situation, with particular reference to problems relating to the financial crisis, the fight against poverty, corruption, drug-trafficking, social mobility and the protection of life from conception," read a Vatican statement released later Friday.

"The pope is going to do what he can to help us," said Fernández. "He is an Argentine concerned about his country and its people. Debt brought poverty to society," he added.

As well as its debt and poverty woes, Argentina is battling one of the world's highest rates of inflation, topping 53 percent last year.

The Vatican will next week host a meeting on debt restructuring which will be attended among others by IMF managing director Kristalina Georgieva and Economy Minister Martin Guzmán. 

Fernández, who said he shared with the pontiff an "obsession to unite Argentinians," said one issue he did not discuss with Francis was abortion – an issue the former supports.

– TIMES/AP/AFP

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