Couchepin meets the Pope in Rome

Pascal Couchepin (left) said the Pope looked physically diminished during their meeting Keystone

The Swiss president, Pascal Couchepin, has met Pope John Paul II at the Vatican in Rome.

This content was published on July 7, 2003 - 17:27

The frail-looking Pontiff granted Couchepin a brief audience in his private library, during which they discussed Switzerland and its cultural diversity.

The Swiss president said the Pope did not look particularly well during the meeting - his last official engagement before heading off to his summer residence.

“The meeting was pleasant, though perhaps not for him as he was visibly suffering, but for me it was,” Couchepin told swissinfo.

Regular Vatican observers said, however, that the Pope seemed to be in no worse shape than usual.

Couchepin added that John Paul II was one of the most important men of the 20th century.

“He always had the courage to be against totalitarian governments,” he said. “I think he has an extraordinary legacy beyond his religious activities.”

The last official meeting between a Swiss government minister and the Pope was in 2000, when the Pontiff met the former head of the defence ministry, Adolf Ogi.

The Pope is expected to travel to Switzerland next June to attend a national meeting of young Catholics in Bern. The last visit by the leader of the Catholic Church was a 14-city tour in 1984.

Iraq talks

The Swiss president also spent an hour with the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano.

Discussions centred on the Iraqi crisis, with Sodano reminding Couchepin that the Vatican had always sought peaceful solutions to international conflicts.

The secretary of state said that while war sometimes made it possible to root out evils, other means than those used by the United States and Britain in Iraq should have come into play.

Couchepin said that the Vatican and Switzerland shared the same outlook.

“We want peace, tolerance and the capacity to live together even between civilisations that are not the same,” he explained.

The talks also focused on the Middle East and the enlargement of the European Union.

“Cardinal Sodano is pragmatic like the Swiss,” he told swissinfo. “It’s up to Europe to decide its future organisation, whether it wants to be a superstate or simply an organisation.”

Closer ties

Couchepin explained that Switzerland and the Vatican do not currently have normal diplomatic relations.

“We are in a category with Russia and the Palestine Liberation Organisation,” he said. “It is an internal problem within Switzerland. In the past, we have always been very careful about the Church’s power.”

The president also said he was not prepared to alienate part of the Swiss population to improve Switzerland’s relationship with the Holy See.

The founders of Couchepin’s own Radical Party were firmly anti-clerical back in the 19th century.


On Tuesday, Couchepin will meet with the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi.

Talks with the premier will focus on wrapping up Switzerland’s second round of bilateral agreements with the European Union, which is headed by Italy for the next six months.

A key issue will be the question of how to tackle tax fraud - one of the main sticking points hindering progress of a series of ten bilateral accords designed to strengthen ties between Bern and Brussels.

Switzerland and Italy have clashed on a number of occasions over the issue, with Swiss banking secrecy the main bone of contention.

swissinfo, Scott Capper and Juliet Linley

In brief

Switzerland’s president, Pascal Couchepin, said his meeting in Rome was pleasant but the Pope seemed to be suffering.

Regular Vatican observers said the Pope did not seem particularly unwell.

Couchepin said the Pope was courageous for taking on totalitarian governments.

He also spoke with the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Soldano, about the Iraqi crisis, the Middle East and EU enlargement.

The Pope is due to travel to Switzerland in June.

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