French president visits pope after Islamic attacks

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VATICAN CITY (AP) — French President Francois Hollande visited Pope Francis on Wednesday to thank him for his words of comfort after a spate of Islamic extremist attacks in recent months left more than 200 dead, including an elderly French priest.

Hollande arrived at the Vatican for the 40-minute private audience after visiting the French church in Rome's historic center. He told reporters that he wanted to thank Francis for his solidarity after the July 14 Nice attack and the subsequent slaying of the priest in his church.

When Hollande spoke with Francis last month, "he told me in confidence that he was standing like a brother by the side of the French people," the French president said. "All the words that have been said — I'm also thinking of the leaders of the French church— have been very important because they helped remind the French people of their unity ... and also of the solidarity of the whole world toward France."

Hollande had called Francis to express his solidarity after Islamic extremists attacked a Normandy church during Mass and slit the throat of the priest, the Rev. Jacques Hamel. Hollande pledged to protect French churches and said that "When a priest is attacked, it is all of France that has been hurt."

The Vatican condemned the attack as "absurd" and "barbaric" though Francis subsequently declined to label Islam as a whole as "terrorist."

The Vatican provided no information about the content of Wednesday's audience, but Hollande said he would speak with Francis about refugees, the situation in the Middle East and the plight of Christians who have been targeted in particular by Islamic extremists in Iraq and Syria.

He presented Francis with a piece of Sevres porcelain with the French seal on it, the Vatican said. Francis gave Hollande a bronze sculpture symbolizing the passage from war to peace, as well as his recent teaching documents on the environment and families.

It's the second time the two have met privately; Hollande had a state visit on Jan. 24, 2014.

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