... So that You may be kept informed

UK: Pope shocked by bushfires

By Belinda Tasker
13 Feb 2009 2:21 AM

LONDON, Feb 12 AAP - Pope Benedict XVI has expressed his shock at the damage caused by the Victorian bushfires while welcoming Australia's new ambassador to the Vatican, Tim Fischer.

The former deputy prime minister and Nationals leader met the Pope and his Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone at the Vatican on Thursday to mark his arrival in Rome as Australia's first resident ambassador to the Holy See.

Fischer said the Pope, who sent his condolences regarding the fires to Governor-General Quentin Bryce earlier this week, and Cardinal Bertone had both followed news coverage of the fires on Italian TV throughout the week.

"Both opened the batting on the matter of the bushfires and expressed their deep sympathy and condolences," Fischer told AAP after his meeting in the papal apartments.

"The Pope asked that his message of support and sympathy be extended to the governor-general, prime minister and general public.

"He added to his message (from earlier in the week) by saying the extent of the fires were just extraordinary."

In a statement released by the Vatican, the Pope told Fischer: "With vivid memories of my recent visit to your beautiful country, I assure you of my prayers for the country's wellbeing and in particular I wish to send my condolences to the grieving individuals and families in Victoria who have lost loved ones in the recent bushfires."

Fischer, who with wife Judy and their two sons were given a tour of St Peter's Basilica within the Vatican, also discussed climate change and food security with the Pope.

He arrived in Rome a fortnight ago to begin work as Australia's envoy to the world's smallest nation, which has a population of just 800 people.

The role was previously performed by Australia's ambassador to Ireland, but Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced last July when the Pope was in Australia for World Youth Day that a new separate diplomatic post was needed.

"It was a great privilege to come from Roma, Queensland, to the papal apartments in Roma, Italy, on behalf of Australia," Fischer, a practising Catholic, said.

The Pope told Fischer his posting marked a "new stage in our diplomatic relations and provides an opportunity to deepen mutual understanding and to extend our already significant collaboration".

The Pope noted the success of World Youth Day, reconciliation between the federal government and the country's indigenous population and Australia's growing presence in the Pacific, Asia and Africa.

He also referred to climate change and how Australian missionaries fund and staff hospitals and clinics in poorer countries.

However, the Pope noted his concern about how some of those countries still allowed abortions.

"How ironic it is, however, when some groups, through aid programs, promote abortion as a form of maternal healthcare: taking a life, purportedly to improve the quality of life," he said.