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Italy's president in historic visit to Pope

Written by: Staff

VATICAN CITY, Nov 20 (Reuters) In a visit that turned Italian history on its head, the first former communist to be elected president went to the Vatican for talks with Pope Benedict today.

Giorgio Napolitano, who was elected in May and has been reported by the Italian media to be an atheist, told the Pope it was an ''intensely personal emotion'' to be in the Vatican.

The 81-year-old's visit was light years away from the days after World War Two when Italy's powerful Catholic Church threatened the faithful with excommunication if they voted for the Communist Party, then the largest in the West.

One of the last living Italian politicians to have resisted fascism, Napolitano was 20 years old when the war ended in 1945.

He joined the Italian Communist Party the same year and was elected to parliament for the first time in 1953.

Church-state relations have improved greatly in the past two decades despite leftist politicians occasionally accusing the Pope of interfering in domestic affairs when he denounces gay marriage and abortion.

In their public speeches the Pope and Napolitano stressed today's respectful relations between Church and state.

Benedict reminded Napolitano the Church taught that life should be respected from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death.

Abortion has been legal in Italy since 1978 and its introduction was favoured by leftist parties at the time in one of the biggest clashes between Church and state.

Napolitano, who was greeted with all the pomp and ceremony few institutions can lay on like the Vatican, said certain decisions belonged only to the state but they should rest on ''ethical foundations of politics''.

Throughout the Cold War years, the Communist party sided with the Soviet Union and often against the Church. It backed the Soviet Union's invasion of Hungary in 1956.

The party went through a crisis of conscience in 1989 after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In 1991, as the Soviet Union broke up, it changed its name and its politics to a more Socialist orientation.

It kept the hammer and sickle on its flag until 1998, when it replaced it with the red rose of socialism.

Reuters SP DB2131

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