TIME Italy

Freed Aid Workers Return to Italy Amid Anger at Suspected Ransom Paid to Militants

Italian aid workers abducted in Syria last summer, Greta Ramelli (L) and Vanessa Marzullo arrive at Ciampino airport in Rome early on Jan. 16, 2015.
Filippo Monteforte—AFP/Getty Images Italian aid workers abducted in Syria last summer, Greta Ramelli (L) and Vanessa Marzullo arrive at Ciampino airport in Rome early on Jan. 16, 2015.

Vanessa Marzullo and Greta Ramelli were abducted from the Syrian town of Aleppo in July

The two kidnapped Italian aid workers landed in Rome at four on Friday morning. They looked subdued, huddled in their parkas, as the Italian foreign minister escorted them through the darkness between the plane and the arrival hall.

The two women, Vanessa Marzullo, 21, and Greta Ramelli, 20, had been abducted from the Syrian town of Aleppo in July. They had most recently been seen in a YouTube video posted on December 31, dressed in black veils and warning that they were “in big danger and could be killed.” But even as their release offered a glimmer of good news from a conflict that has been unrelentingly grim, they have hardly returned to a hero’s welcome.

In the newspapers and on social media, the rescue of the aid workers was subject to flurries of criticism after a Dubai-based media outlet reported that the Italian government paid a 12-million euro ($13.8 million) ransom for their release. “I’m happy that the girls are free and alive,” says Riccardo Pelliccetti, a top editor at the conservative daily Il Giornale. “But the fact remains that when you bow to blackmail, you’ve lost the game.”

The outpouring of anger represented a rare moment of debate in Italy over negotiating with terrorist groups that hold hostages. The United States and Great Britain have refused to pay ransoms, and citizens of those countries — including the journalist James Foley and British aid worker David Haines — may have been executed as a result. Even so, the kidnapping groups do very well out of the ransoms that are paid. An investigation by the New York Times in July found that Al Qaeda and other Islamic militant groups had taken in at least $125 million in money paid in ransoms since 2008, most it from European countries.

Italy, by contrast, has a long tradition of being willing to do nearly anything in order to save a hostage’s life, says Sergio Fabbrini, a professor of political science and international relations at Rome’s LUISS University. When leftist terrorists kidnapped the former prime minister Aldo Moro in 1978, many close to the government wanted to negotiate his release. “There is a common understanding in Italy that life is the superior value, so everything should be done in order to save people,” he says. “Our Catholic attitude tends to hold life as an absolute.”

The Italian government has neither confirmed nor denied that a ransom had been paid in exchange for the release of the aid workers. In remarks to Parliament, Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni dismissed the reports as “speculation.” He said that Italy was “against paying ransoms” and added that the country had acted within international norms and in line with the polices of previous Italian governments, but he stopped short of categorically stating that a ransom had not been paid.

Some of the criticism was politically motivated. Matteo Salvini, head of the far-right Northern League, an opposition party, tweeted on Thursday that if the government had indeed paid a ransom it would be “disgusting.” But the anger could also be seen on the website of Corriere Della Sera, the closest thing Italy has to a paper of record. The headline — “Greta and Vanessa in Italy” — was sober and the article was factual, but the comment section was full of bile — in particular over the money being spent.

“If these two young ladies wanted to do something good, they could have gone to distribute meals at the cafeteria of [the Catholic charity] Caritas,” read the top-ranked comment. “Or is that not cool enough?????” The website asks readers to click on an icon representing their mood after reading an article. As the day progressed, the percentage of respondents who had selected the angry face hovered at just below 90%.

Many commenters described the two women as naive. They had been kidnapped just days after entering Syria for the second time, during a period in the war when entering the country had become synonymous with danger. They were working for an NGO they had founded with another Italian. “It’s one thing if a journalist goes into Syria to inform, as part of his job, or if a technician goes to Nigeria to work on the oil wells, but these were volunteers,” says Il Giornale’s Pelliccetti. “They went in knowingly, at a moment when there was a civil conflict.”

In an article in the morning’s paper ​Pelliccetti estimated that the Italian government has paid 61 million euros ($70 million) to militant groups since 2004. “How many operations like [the attacks on the editorial offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo] can you fund with that type of money,” he said. “You have to consider not just how many lives you save, but how many are you killing.”

Read next: Growth of Muslim Populations in Europe Map

TIME World Cup

Why America Doesn’t Like Soccer, And How That Can Be Changed

Nigeria at United States, friendly
Stephen M. Dowell—Orlando Sentinel/MCT/ Getty Images Fans celebrate during the United States' 2-1 win against Nigeria in a friendly in preparation for the World Cup, at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla., on Saturday, June 7, 2014.

The "Beautiful Game" can expand its reach beyond fringe support in the United States — but it'll need to change the rules first

As the FIFA World Cup begins in Brazil, pundits are already dusting off their explanations on why Americans don’t care for soccer. But only the most daring will offer proposals to change the game to make it more appealing to the American public.

First, the problem. Far and away the most common reason cited for the sport’s unpopularity in the United States is that you can spend 90 minutes watching and never see a goal. “Americans love to see scoring,” says Stephen Clark, a news anchor at WXYZ news in Detroit, who wrote a post on the subject ahead of the last World Cup in South Africa. “In soccer it’s too usual to see a game end at 1-0.”

Football — the one with the helmets and pads — may not always have a lot of scoring, but at least each touchdown delivers six points and an opportunity for a couple more. And then, between them, there’s the relentless to-and-fro across the field. “It’s almost military,” says Clark. “We like to march down the field and get rewarded for every victory. You’re rewarded every ten yards. It’s like conquering territory.”

Compare that to soccer, where it’s not unusual to see a team reset the play by kicking the ball back towards their own goal. The play never stops, but nobody gains lasting advantage. “When do you go the bathroom?” says Clark. “When do you get a beer?” More crucially, he points out: When does the broadcaster get a commercial break?

The problem isn’t just infrequent scoring, says Michael Mandelbaum, director of the American Foreign Policy program at John Hopkins University and author of The Meaning of Sports: Why Americans Watch Baseball, Football, and Basketball and What They See If They Do. It’s the frequency with which games end in a “draw” — or a tie, in American parlance.

Ties are impossible in baseball and basketball, he points out, and “as rare as eclipses” in American football. And when they do happen they aren’t settled by something as capricious and peripheral to the game as penalty kick shoot-outs. “This seems absurd to Americans, like deciding the Super Bowl through a field goal kicking contest,” he says.

Mandelbaum also offers a proposal to make the game more popular in the United States. He’d alter the rules to favor the offense, eliminating the offside rule, which forbids players from passing to teammates standing behind enemy lines. Alternatively, he’d use the number of corner kicks awarded to each team as a way to break ties, a method that would reward aggressive play. “For this to happen in the US, however, the rest of the world would have to do the same, which it won’t,” he says.

The close-mindedness of the sport’s establishment shouldn’t stand in the way of a good idea. And so, in that spirit, here’s a modest proposal: soccer should take its cue from boxing and install three field-side judges to secretly score every 15-minute interval. Goals would be like knock-outs. Points would only come into play in the case of a tie.

The scorecards would put greater importance on each moment of the game (Sorry Clark, still no bathroom breaks). Teams would be motivated to play spectacularly or risk losing on points. Squads that felt they had slipped behind would be doubly pressed to get that last minute goal.

Best of all, the change would bring an entirely new aspect to the game, one not unfamiliar to fans of boxing (or for that matter figure stating): judges. After all, it’s one thing to argue about a referee’s call on a set of objective, verifiable rules. Think of all the fun that can be had arguing about the secret decisions of the judges.

TIME Italy

Matteo Renzi: ‘Italy Will Never Be a Normal Country’

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi at the Palazzo Chigi in Rome on April 28, 2014.
Alex Majoli—Magnum for TIME Prime Minister Matteo Renzi at the Palazzo Chigi in Rome on April 28, 2014.

Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi spoke to TIME on April 24 in his first interview with a non-Italian news organization since becoming premier in February. The conversation touched on a wide range of topics, from his plans to reform the Italian political system to his desire for a United States of Europe

Read Stephan Faris’ full story on Matteo Renzi in this week’s issue of TIME.

I’ve been reading your interviews and speeches, and I’ve seen many phrases like “In a normal country, this wouldn’t happen.” In what way is Italy not a normal country?

Italy will never be a normal country. Because Italy is Italy. If we were a normal country, we wouldn’t have Rome. We wouldn’t have Florence. We wouldn’t have the marvel that is Venice. There is in the DNA of the Italians a bit of madness, which in the overwhelming majority of cases is positive. It is genius. It is talent. It’s the masterpieces of art. It’s the food, fashion, everything that makes Italy great in the world.

But then, we’re not a normal country because we have a complicated bureaucracy, a political system that’s appalling. We have twice as many parliamentarians as the United States. We pay some presidents of [administrative] regions more than the United States pays its president. We would like to make Italy a normal country from the point of view of the political system.

Where did Italy go wrong?

It went wrong in the public administration. It’s too complicated. And in its politics. It has too many politicians. Why? Because in these years Italy has been unable to change itself. The UK changed its skin with Tony Blair. Germany changed skin first with [Gerhard] Schröder and then with [Angela] Merkel. The U.S. has changed its skin various times. But Italy remained attached to conservatism. It had a political class that lived in the past and didn’t build the future. The past is our strength, but it risks becoming our ruin if we walk with our heads turned backwards.

When you met Angela Merkel, you made a toast where you compared Italy to Michelangelo’s David. What did you mean by that?

When Michelangelo finished his David, Florentines asked him, ‘How did you do it?’ And Michelangelo said, it was really easy. All I had to do was cut away all the marble that was in excess. That’s how I see Italy. If we cut away all the things that are in excess, bureaucratically, fiscally, something will come out that’s more beautiful than the David… More beautiful than the David, let’s not exaggerate. As beautiful as the David.

A string of Prime Ministers have tried to reform Italy before you, and failed. What makes you think you’re going to succeed where others have not been able to make progress?

Do you know the game [Pick-up Sticks], where you have to pull out one stick at a time [without disturbing the others]? Many of my predecessors thought that it was enough to play [that game when trying to] change the administration in Italy, pull out one stick at a time. I’m convinced that we need to risk everything and try to do a real revolution. Unlike those who think it’s enough to pull out one piece at a time, we’ll put in all our courage, all our energy, all our grit, and we’ll try to overturn the system altogether.

I think at this moment, we have the conditions to do it. This is the right moment. If we don’t do it now, Italy misses the train. Italy is a strange problem. [But] in its moments of maximum difficulty it has always found the strength to do the most incredible things. Italy is this. I bet you that in the next 10 years, Italy will return to be the leader of Europe, the locomotive of Europe. The Italy of my children will be at head of Europe, economically. Because Italy has all the conditions to be the country of the startups, the country of artisans and quality, and the country of the big companies.

You’ve been compared to Tony Blair, because of the way he took on the old guard of his country and changed the definition of what it means to be left-wing in the United Kingdom. What does being left-wing mean to you?

Blair changed the Labour Party, which was one of the most antiquated institutions in the global political world. With Blair it became a place of innovation. It’s the same thing we need to do in Italy. For me, left-wing is the “future.” So, it’s innovation. So, it’s curiosity. So, it’s investment in new technologies. So, it’s giving opportunities for wealth to everybody, but not constraining everybody at the same level. The left is equality, but not in the way that part of the Italian unions thinks, in the sense that everybody needs to arrive at the same point. No. Everybody needs to start from the same point. And then if you’re better, go. For me, the left is courage, risk.

You’ve been criticized for working with former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on electoral reforms, especially given that he’s been convicted of tax fraud and stands accused of paying senators to switch parties. Why did you choose to do that?

Berlusconi is the head of the main opposition party. In many other institutional systems, it would be illogical or unnatural that the head of a party could have the problems with the justice system that you referred to. But in Italy, the state of affairs is that Berlusconi still represents a significant slice of the population.

I’m not forming a government with Silvio Berlusconi. I’m not making secret agreements with Silvio Berlusconi. I want to make an agreement with him, because you shouldn’t write the rules of the game by yourself. The rules of the game should be written together.

Up until February, when you became Prime Minister, you had said that you wanted to take office only after winning an election. And then, you used a parliamentary maneuver to take over from Enrico Letta, the former Prime Minister. Why did you feel that was necessary?

I made this choice because the country was stalled. Blocked. The government wasn’t moving forward. Our constitution provides the possibility to create a parliamentary government. And Enrico Letta wasn’t elected by the people. It’s not like there was a Letta government that won the elections and was replaced. Letta [came to power through] a parliamentary maneuver, exactly the same. He didn’t even have the responsibility of being the leader of his party. At least, I was voted head of the biggest Italian party [the Democratic party]. Which isn’t enough, but it’s something.

It came with a heavy political price.

It wasn’t a political cost. It was a personal cost. That’s something different. I love being in the piazzas. I love campaigning for election. I like the contact with people. But there was a need for a signal of change. I don’t see political costs. I see a personal costs. I would have liked to arrive here after elections.

You don’t think it robbed you of some of the public enthusiasm that you might have benefited from had you come to power by winning an election?

Yes, there was a moment of lack of enthusiasm. It wasn’t so much Italians, who received me with curiosity, as if they were saying, “Let’s see if this one fails too.” It was my friends would have preferred a different approach… I also preferred another approach. But there are moments when you need to do something. And when things need to be done, they should be done.

You’ve said that if you don’t abolish the Senate, the upper house of the Italian Parliament, that you’ll leave politics. What deadlines have you set for yourself?

Within several weeks, we’ll see if the [proposal] is going forward or not. But I’m ready to put in writing that it’ll go forward, that we’re really going to change [the system]. Because the people are with us. It’s not thinkable that things will go up in smoke. But anyway, in respect to your question, my deadline for the first vote is five or six weeks.

You’ve said that the EU stability and growth pact, a set of budgetary rules for European countries, should be renegotiated. While you’ve pledged to respect the EU’s budget deficit limit of 3 percent of GDP, you’ve said that limit is outdated.

People have said, don’t respect the rules. I say something different. First let’s respect the rules. So, Italy respects the rules. It’s only Italy and Germany among the big countries that respect the rules. That this rule is hard to follow is demonstrated by the fact that the only ones who are following it are Italy and Germany.

The problem isn’t the rule itself. It’s that this rule was thought up 20 years ago, when there was another world, when inflation was at a different level. So technically, it’s obvious that this rule is no longer current, that it’s anachronistic. But I don’t want to use the excuse that it’s anachronistic not to respect it. I’ll respect the rule. Afterwards I can ask to change it. If unemployment doubles, it means the rules is not working.

You’ve said you’d like to have a United States of Europe, a stronger Europe.

Today Europe has rules that almost nobody respects. Italy, yes. Italy respects all the European rules. And yet, it’s a Europe that’s very tied to the criteria of austerity, of rigidity. It’s too much in the hands of technicians and functionaries, of bureaucrats. I believe that Europe needs to be given back to the people, to families. [That] means having a vision of the European Union, in which you go towards a United States of Europe. A European civil service. Labor policies that [are] the same in all the countries. Possibilities of excluding investments in schools, in research, in innovation, from the stability pact.

It’s not sensible that saving a bank [should concern] Europe, but that saving a boat in the Mediterranean [concerns] only Italy. That the bailout fund [concerns] Europe…but bailing out migrants is up to us.

Italy will assume the Presidency of the European Union for six months from July. What are your goals for the term?

[It] is a great occasion to change the approach of Italy towards Europe. Five years ago, 54% of Italians approved of Europe. Today, it’s 28%. Why? Because many blame Europe as the cause of our problems. It’s not like that. If we didn’t have Europe, it would be worse for us. We wouldn’t have had monetary and financial stability. But I understand that in a family where somebody is unemployed, they see the rigor of Brussels as the only religious doctrine, and the connection is immediate: they fired my son because of the technocrats in Brussels.

I think in the next six months we need to show that Europe is the solution of the problem, not the cause of the problem.

On the domestic front, if you could choose one reform—and only one—and get it implemented exactly as you propose, what would you choose?

Probably the constitutional reform [the centerpiece of which is abolishing the Senate]. Because that’s the one that changes the rules of the game, that simplifies, that gives Italy a simpler institutional system, similar to others. It’s the only solution to get out of the state we are in. With today’s system, Obama wouldn’t be able to govern. Cameron wouldn’t be able to govern. Merkel wouldn’t be able to govern.

How big of an obstacle is the Italian Parliament for you? Your government is based on the same fractious coalition that your predecessor was unable to manage.

I’m absolutely certain that this Parliament, for one thousand reasons, will last until 2018, the natural end of its term. I’m convinced of it.

If you want to be positive, you can see that the parliamentarians are aware of the fundamental importance of the process of reforms that has been initiated. They know this is the turning point. They understand that it’s the right time.

If you want to be mean, you can say that the survival instinct prevails in Parliament. They know that if we had to go to the vote, many of them would have difficulties, even to find space on the [ballot], never mind in parliament. This is the reason why a significant number are right now ready to grit their teeth. That’s the negative view, what someone malicious would say.

I’m good, so I say it’s without a doubt the first reason.

If you had to leave politics, what would you do?

I believe that doing politics is a beautiful experience, extraordinary, fascinating. But here in Italy we need to get used to seeing politics not as a career for life, but as an obligation for a bit of time. I imagine myself as somebody who tries to change the country for a few years, and when I quit, I quit.

I’m less than 40 years old. I don’t come from a rich family. I don’t come from a noble family. I’ve never lived in Rome. [Before becoming Prime Minister] I had never once put a foot in Parliament, and yet Italy gives me the opportunity to try to change it. It means that maybe this country is more open to opportunities and talent than people think.

And what would you do after politics?

For me, after politics, I could be a professor in a university. A manager in a private company. A… a librarian. A dad. Or maybe a grandfather. No, better a dad.

It doesn’t sound like it’s something you’ve thought about.

No. I imagine ending my political experience very young. I hope to have time to recapture a private sphere that at this moment I don’t have anymore.


The 2014 TIME 100: Italy’s Renzi Recalls Obama’s Meeting With Pope Francis

Both the U.S. President and Pope Francis feature in TIME's list of the one hundred most influential people of the year

On the morning of March 27, President Barack Obama met Pope Francis in Rome. That afternoon, on the other side of the Tiber River he paid another visit, to Italy’s newly elected prime minister, Matteo Renzi.

“I met Obama the same day that he had met the Pope, and at the end of our meeting we were alone for about 10 minutes while they were organizing the cars,” Renzi, 39, recalls in an interview with TIME. “He had told me that he had been really impressed by the meeting they had had.”

Both Obama and the Pope feature in TIME’s list of the one hundred most influential people in the world. And the President’s admiration for Francis shines through in his piece for the special TIME 100 issue of the magazine published today. Describing the Pontiff as a “leader who makes us want to be better people,” Obama said he reminds us that “we are bound by moral obligations to one another.”

“If you ask my opinion of [the] Pope, as a Catholic, I say that I’m deeply struck by the capacity that the church had of understanding and changing. Not only the resignation of Ratzinger, but also that Ratzinger was succeeded by Bergoglio—two very different models,” says Renzi. “From a political point of view, Pope Francis is a reference point that, in my opinion, is very sensitive to a several themes: social justice, fairness, a focus on the least fortunate, much more than other popes in the past. And from this point of view I share Obama’s judgment.”

Renzi’s remarks come as he attempts to revive the Italian economy. Weighed down by record levels of public debt, the country has struggled as growth across the region hit the buffers, exposing deep structural flaws in what is the eurozone’s third largest economy. Since taking over earlier this year, the telegenic former Mayor of Florence has adopted an ambitious reform agenda in a bid to pull the country out of the doldrums.

TIME Vatican

Inside Obama’s Meeting With Pope Francis

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks with Pope Francis during their meeting at the Vatican March 27, 2014.
Stefano Spaziani U.S. President Barack Obama speaks with Pope Francis during their meeting at the Vatican March 27, 2014.

The Obama administration had billed the meeting as an opportunity to share common ground over the gap between the rich and the poor

The private meeting between President Barack Obama and Pope Francis had been scheduled to run for half-an-hour. It lasted 52 minutes. The president had been escorted into the Vatican by a line of Swiss guards, dressed in purple and yellow, wearing helmets and carrying pole arms. The cameras clicked as the president and the Pontiff shook hands, and then they sat at a small wooden table in the Papal Library, exchanging greetings through translators. “It’s wonderful to be here,” Obama said. “I’m a great admirer. Thank you so much for receiving me.” Francis answered: “Thank you.”

The rest of their meeting took place behind closed doors. The Obama administration had billed the meeting, the first between the two leaders, as an opportunity to share common ground over the gap between the rich and the poor. “The Holy Father has inspired people all over the world, including me, with his commitment to social just and his message of love and compassion, especially for poorest and most vulnerable among us,” Obama said the day before in an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. “When the Pope speaks, his words have an enormous weight.”

But the two men are likely to have touched on subjects on which they disagreed. Vatican officials have said that Francis would bring up the concern of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops over the requirement that birth control be covered under the new health care reform law. And on Thursday, Francis met briefly with a group of immigration activists, who asked him to raise the issue of deportations in the United States. According to Jersey Vargas, a 10-year-old elementary school student from Los Angeles whose father is facing deportation, the Pope promised he would raise the issue when the two men met. “I told him to pray for my family and to ask the president to stop deportation because it’s separating my family,” Vargas told Fox News Latino. “He blessed me and told me he would bring this up with President Obama.”

At the end of the visit, the two men emerged to pose for pictures and exchange gifts. Obama gave the pope a wooden box made of reclaimed wood from one of the oldest Cathedrals in America, containing fruit and vegetable seeds from the White House Garden. “If you have the chance to come to the White house, you’ll also see our garden,” said Obama. “Of course,” answered the pope. The Pope, in return gave Obama a copy of the encyclical he published in June. “I actually will probably read this at the Oval Office when I’m deeply frustrated,” Obama said, eliciting a chuckle from the pontiff. “I’m sure it will give me strength and calm me down.”

Rome was in a state of partial lockdown during Obama’s visit, with traffic diverted in many parts of the city center to make way for Obama’s Chevrolet SUV and his 50-car motorcade. The broad boulevard leading from the edge of the Tiber River to St. Peter’s Square and the Vatican was cleared of cars. On the other side of town, yellow police tape lined the long lane that runs between Rome’s ancient forums to the Coliseum, where Obama was expected to tour in the afternoon.

After his visit with the Pope, Obama was expected to meet with the Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, followed by a “working lunch,” with Italy’s President, Giorgio Napolitano, and a meeting and a news conference with the country’s recently elected Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi. After his tour of the Coliseum, he was scheduled to meet with embassy staff and their families.

TIME The Vatican

President Obama Prepares to Meet the People’s Pope

President Barack Obama and Pope Francis exchange gifts during a private audience on March 27, 2014 at the Vatican.
Gabriel Bouys—AFP/Getty Images President Barack Obama and Pope Francis exchange gifts during a private audience on March 27, 2014 at the Vatican.

President Barack Obama meets with Pope Francis in Vatican City and, with his poll numbers, probably hopes some of the pontiff's popularity will rub off on him before he leaves. "I'm a great admirer," Obama tells Francis

The focus of the conversation when President Barack Obama meets Pope Francis on Thursday is expected to be the gap between the rich and the poor. Obama has called income inequality “the defining challenge of our time,” and Pope Francis has made the plight of the poor the centerpiece of his papacy. “One of the things that the Pope has done globally is put the issue of poverty back on the list,” says Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington.

For Obama, whose job-approval rating slipped to a lowly 41% earlier this month, the meeting is a rare chance to share a common platform — both physically and in terms of policy — with a Pontiff who enjoys the popularity of a media superstar. “It would be terrific for any politician on the planet to have his picture taken next to Pope Francis right now,” says Schneck, who served during the last election as national co-chair of Catholics for Obama. “Here in the United States, politicians like Paul Ryan are talking about poverty almost every day, and I think we have to credit the Pope with that.”

In the first year of his papacy, Francis has shifted the Catholic conversation toward Obama’s side of the court, lowering the heat on culture-war battles like gay marriage in favor of an emphasis on the least fortunate. But the two men may find that they also have plenty on which to disagree. The meeting comes two days after the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a challenge to the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s signature accomplishment, on grounds that it violated religious freedom by requiring for-profit corporations to provide insurance coverage for contraception. It’s an issue repeatedly stressed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and which Francis is likely to raise.

The visit will be the second Obama has made to the Vatican, and his previous appearance, along with a meeting in January between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his counterpart Pietro Parolin, offer hints of what the President can expect. In 2009, Obama met with Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. The two talked for a little less than half an hour, nearly double the 15 minutes that had been allotted. In a conversation that seemed to be a search for common ground, the two discussed immigration, the global economic crisis and the peace process in the Middle East. Benedict raised the issue of abortion, and Obama pledged to do everything in his power to reduce their numbers.

During Kerry’s visit, emphasis was on the Middle East, with special attention paid to Syria, according to a statement released by the Vatican after the meeting. The focus of the encounter had been announced ahead of time to be on international affairs, but Parolin also took the opportunity to raise his concern for the requirement that contraception be covered under the Affordable Care Act. “There’s a little bit of a precedent for getting into unforeseen issues,” says John Wauck, a priest of the Opus Dei and a professor at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome.

Indeed, Francis has not shied away from confrontation. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he clashed repeatedly with Argentine President Christina Kirchner over gay marriage, abortion and contraception. And during discussions in 2013 over whether the U.S. should intervene in Syria, Francis’ was one of the loudest voices in opposition to a proposed bombing campaign. “This Pope is coming from a southern-hemisphere perspective,” says Schneck. “American exceptionalism in international affairs isn’t something that’s automatically going to be accepted.”

Other issues that could come up during the meeting include climate change, workers’ rights and immigration. While Obama favors immigration reform, his Administration has been unyielding when it comes to deportations. Francis, by contrast, has emphasized the plight of migrants. In July, he visited the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa to call attention to those who have died crossing the Mediterranean from Africa to Europe. At the end of this month, a group of U.S. bishops is planning to follow the Pope’s example and perform a mass on the U.S.-Mexico border to draw attention to the immigration debate. “The Pope is full of surprises,” says Wauck. “All bets are off about what he might want to talk about to the President of the United States. He’s broken with convention so often in the past.”

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