Pope and the president of Argentina meet like old friends

Kirchner and the pontiff, who have had their differences, had amicable meeting and exchanged gifts

Pope Francis holds a traditional calabash gourd used to drink Mate, which was given to him as a present from President Cristina Kirchner yesterday. Photograph: Argentine Presidency via New York Times

Pope Francis holds a traditional calabash gourd used to drink Mate, which was given to him as a present from President Cristina Kirchner yesterday. Photograph: Argentine Presidency via New York Times

Tue, Mar 19, 2013, 06:00

PADDY AGNEW
in Rome


“I’ve never been kissed by a pope before.”

So said Argentine president Cristina Kirchner after she met yesterday with her compatriot, the newly-elected Pope Francis, who had greeted her with a friendly kiss. Ms Kirchner, one of 31 heads of state who have travelled to Rome for today’s inauguration Mass marking the official start of the Francis pontificate, had a private meeting with the pope in the Domus Santa Marta in the Vatican.

The decision to meet so promptly with the president of Argentina is significant. Not only did Francis have difficult relations with Ms Kirchner and with her president husband, Nestor Kirchner, during his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, but the issue of Francis’s record during the Videla military junta years in the 1970s represents the first major international criticism to be levelled at the new pope.

However, yesterday it was all sweetness and light as the pope and the president exchanged gifts, with Ms Kirchner later saying the two had “thanked one another repeatedly”. She told reporters it had been the pope who had invited her to lunch. “I found him to be serene, secure and at peace with himself even if he is obviously concerned about the task awaiting him, taking control of the Holy See and changing those things which he knows have to be changed … ”

Ms Kirchner said she had called on the pope to intervene in the dispute over the Falklands islands. “I asked for his intervention to avoid problems that could emerge from the militarisation of Great Britain in the south Atlantic. We want a dialogue and that’s why we asked the pope to intervene so that the dialogue is successful.”

The atmosphere was different nine years ago when Mr Kirchner described the Archbishop of Buenos Aires as the “real leader of the opposition”, following his criticism of the then Argentine government.

In more recent times, Francis clashed with Ms Kirchner especially in relation to the legalisation of gay marriage and vasectomy legislation. Even after Francis’ election last week, she sent him a distinctly cool letter of congratulations.

The question of the pope’s record during the dirty war years of the Videla junta seems likely to stalk him for some time. In particular, journalist Horacio Verbitsky, in his book The Island of Silence , alleges Francis collaborated with the military regime and failed to protect two Jesuit priests, who were arrested and tortured by the military.