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ARGENTINA | 09-02-2024 10:43

Argentines at odds: Milei and Pope Francis set to meet

Javier Milei will meet Pope Francis for the first time on Sunday, amid seeing Israel as a "natural" ally, having different world views, and formerly calling the Pope an "imbecile" during his campaign.

Argentine President Javier Milei will have his first meeting on Sunday with Pope Francis, a compatriot he once described as an "imbecile" who "promotes communism.”

Milei will attend a mass at the Vatican for the canonisation of Argentina's first female saint, 18th-century missionary 'Mama Antula,' over which the 87-year-old pontiff – a former archbishop of Buenos Aires – will preside.

The two men are due to meet during the religious ceremony at St Peter's Basilica before a formal audience at the Vatican on Monday morning.

Milei, who has embarked on a deregulation drive, has in the past been sharply critical of Pope Francis, a Jesuit who regularly speaks out against inequalities caused by the financial markets, while championing the plight of the poor.

Before his election last November, Milei – who describes himself as an "anarcho-capitalist" – referred to the head of the Catholic Church as "the evil one," "nefarious," and an "imbecile" who "promotes communism."

But the two seemed to reconcile when Francis called to congratulate Milei on his victory.

During the call, the president invited the pope to visit Catholic-majority Argentina, to which the former Jorge Bergoglio has not returned since becoming pontiff in 2013.

The pontiff subsequently confirmed his intention to go back, although the Vatican has yet to set a date.


'Brotherhood' of Argentines

In January, Milei sent the pope a letter, saying a visit would "result in peacemaking and brotherhood for all Argentines, eager to overcome divisions and confrontations".

It marked a change from remarks last year, when he accused the pope of interfering in politics, and failing to condemn dictators such as Cuba's Fidel Castro.

But the pontiff has brushed off the criticism as rhetoric in the heat of an election campaign.

"You have to distinguish a lot between what a politician says in the election campaign and what he actually does afterwards," Francis said in an interview in December with Mexican channel Televisa.

Despite the two men's different world views – including on climate change, a priority for Francis but for which Milei refuses to blame human activity – they will have concerns in common.

Sergio Rubin, an Argentine journalist and the pope's biographer, said Milei's letter had opened the way to a shared approach.

In it, the president advocated protecting "our vulnerable compatriots" while applying reforms in a country where annual inflation runs at more than 200 percent, and where 40 percent of the population lives in poverty.

Rubin told AFP he expected the two men to discuss the "unity of Argentines" in a polarised country and how reform "affects those who have the least, so the burden is shared equally".

"It seems that the pope will tell [Milei] to take care of the poor, and try to create a less confrontational atmosphere in Argentina," he said.

Milei was elected on a wave of anger over decades of economic decline.

But his programme was dealt a major setback earlier this week when a controversial deregulatory reform in Congress – where his party is only the third-biggest group – was sent back for a rewrite.

 

Israel visit

Milei, who is due to arrive in Rome on Friday, is also set to meet with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and President Sergio Mattarella on Monday.

He arrives after visiting Israel this week, where he announced moves to shift his country's Embassy to Jerusalem – sparking delight from his hosts but anger from Hamas.

Milei is from a Catholic family but has expressed his fascination with Judaism and has been studying the Torah.

He has said he regularly consults a rabbi and sees Israel as a "natural" ally, along with the United States.

But he said he is not yet considering converting, saying some aspects would be "incompatible" with his position as president, such as the mandatory Saturday Sabbath day of rest.

by Clement Melki & Álvaro Villalobos, AFP

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