Canada’s Harper Meets With Pope as Week-Long Europe Trip Ends

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper held a brief meeting with Pope Francis Thursday before a visit with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, concluding a week-long European tour.

Harper spent much of his tour criticizing Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had met both Renzi and the pope a day earlier.

Harper’s Vatican meeting, his first with a pope since 2009, lasted 10 minutes, brief in comparison to Putin’s 50 minutes a day earlier. They spoke through an interpreter.

Harper and Pope Francis discussed “international political issues,” including Europe and the Middle East, as well as terrorism and environmental issues, according to a Vatican statement. The “good relations” and “positive spirit of cooperation and dialogue” between Canada and the Vatican were discussed as well, the Vatican said.

Harper was accompanied to the Vatican by more than two dozen people, including his wife Laureen Harper, several lawmakers and staff.

Harper didn’t speak to reporters Thursday about the meetings.

This was Harper’s last major scheduled global tour before an Oct. 19 Canadian election, with polls showing Harper’s Conservatives neck-and-neck with two other parties and at risk of losing either their majority status or government altogether.

‘Great Effort’

Pope Francis met with Putin Wednesday, calling on him to “engage in a sincere and great effort to achieve peace,” and implement the Minsk cease-fire agreement in eastern Ukraine, according to a Vatican statement.

Harper has spent the bulk of his trip bluntly criticizing Putin, calling on him to leave Crimea and cease support for separatists in eastern Ukraine. Harper has threatened to expand economic sanctions against Russia, and said the Group of Seven nations are better off holding their summits without Putin or Russia, saying the country under his rule doesn’t share Western values.

Renzi, meanwhile, has stood by Western sanctions, though he raised eyebrows by hosting Putin this week.

‘Cultural Genocide’

During his Vatican visit, Harper also “drew attention” to a letter sent to the Holy See days earlier about Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, according to a written statement from his office. In a report this month, the commission called on the pope to apologize on behalf of the church for abuses that took place in Canada’s aboriginal residential school system, which the commission called a “cultural genocide.”

The letter, and the statement from Harper’s office, made no specific mention of a request for an apology.

Harper instead invited Pope Francis to Canada for 2017 celebrations marking the country’s 150th anniversary of confederation. John Paul II is the only pontiff to have visited Canada, and did so three times. The Vatican statement gave no indication of whether the pope would attend.

Harper left Canada June 5, with stops in Ukraine, Germany for the G-7 summit and Poland before arriving in Rome Wednesday evening.

The European trip brought Harper to countries with large diasporas in Canada -- there are 1.5 million Canadians of Italian descent, another 1.2 million of Ukrainian descent and 1 million of Polish descent, according to 2011 census figures, the most recent year available. The 2011 census also found 12.8 million Canadians identify as Catholic, out of an estimated population of 35 million people.

Harper returns to Canada Thursday evening.

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