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President Clinton and Pope John Paul II aired their irreconcilable differences on abortion Thursday at a 40-minute Vatican meeting. Clinton cited a "common commitment to the central role of the family" despite their disagreement.

The pontiff used the cordial session to drive home his concern over Clinton's efforts to expand abortion rights, both Vatican and U.S. officials said.Clinton told reporters he and the pope made "some progress" on finding common ground. But a Vatican official said that differences could only be narrowed if Clinton moves closer to the pope's firm opposition to abortion.

Clinton did cite one area of agreement: Abortion shouldn't be used as a means of population control.

The meeting - Clinton's second with the pope as president - came on the first leg of a trip celebrating the 50th anniversary of D-Day and the liberation of Rome.

He also met with Italy's controversial new prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi.

Three weeks in office, Berlusconi has drawn sharp criticism from politicians in France, Belgium and Germany because his government, for the first time since World War II, has brought to power politicians from a party with neo-fascist roots.

Berlusconi, a billionaire media tycoon, insists that the National Alliance, one of three parties in his conservative coalition government, has broken with its fascist heritage.

Clinton and his wife Hillary Rodham Clinton also played tourist, visiting the Sistine chapel. Gazing up at the newly restored frescoes, Clinton said: "It's unbelievable."

Abortion was a main topic on the agenda of Clinton's meeting with the pope, as was an upcoming Cairo conference on stabilizing world population. The United Nations is sponsoring the conference, scheduled for September.

"The Holy Father made an appeal to the responsibility of a great nation such as America, whose origin and historical development has always promoted ethical values that are basic to every culture," the Vatican said in a communique issued after the meeting.

The communique cited "grave ethical problems" toward some of the population-control measures expected to be discussed at the conference.

Clinton, speaking with reporters, suggested that differences between himself and the pope on the availability of contraception might be unbridgeable.

"But I think it important that the whole thrust of the Cairo conference be in the context of supporting sustainable development and strong families," he said.

Clinton said he thought they had made "some progress" on finding common ground in general. But Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro later said: "If he says there was a narrowing of differences, it's clear it can be only in one sense," that the United States would come closer to the pope's opposition to abortion.

The pope's opposition to abortion is total.

White House spokeswoman Dee Dee Myers quoted Clinton as saying his meeting with the pope was "awe inspiring." Clinton and the pope also met last August in Den-ver.

Clinton said he and the pope discussed how to reach "responsible population growth and still reaffirm our common commitment to the central role of the family in society."

He also said he thanked the pope for the Vatican's move earlier this year establishing diplomatic ties with Israel.

Aides said the two also talked about Russia, Korea, nuclear nonproliferation and the role of Islamic states in the world.

Vatican insiders described the meeting between Clinton and the pope as cordial, but with the pope standing his ground. The two exchanged gifts: Clinton gave the pope a map of America in the 1800s; the pope gave the president a mosaic representing the Colosseum.

During his visit, Clinton also met with U.S. seminarians studying at the Vatican.

The pope has voiced concern over Clinton administration efforts to liberalize abortion language in a U.N. plan aimed at slowing global population growth.

Clinton has moved to reverse the policy adhered to by the Reagan and Bush administrations in which the United States refused to contribute to the U.N. population fund on grounds the fund was involved in forced abortions in China.

A letter to Clinton from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, made public Tuesday, said, "When our government advocates population control through abortion, contraception and sterilization, it is not a force for freedom but an agent of coercion."

The White House is exploring milder language for the population control policy but is not retreating from the policy itself, officials say.

Clinton began his official day with a visit to Italian President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro. The job of president in Italy is mostly ceremonial.

The speech - two days before the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Rome - raises the curtain on ceremonies marking Allied landings in Italy and France.

Rome was Clinton's first stop on an eight-day journey to Italy, England and France. The highlight will be a huge ceremony in Normandy on Monday marking the June 6, 1944, invasion that broke Hitler's heavily fortified Atlantic Wall and led to the end of World War II.



When in Rome . . . Clinton jogs

President Clinton began a week in Europe by jogging Thursday through one of Italy's most popular tourist areas.

Clinton, accompanied by a group of aides and Reginald Bartholomew, U.S. ambassador to Italy, ran in a sunny, warm morning in a park above Rome's Spanish Steps.

They took in a clear view of the city and the Vatican across the Tiber River, and the ambassador pointed out St. Peter's Basilica and other sights as they paused at an overlook.

Rome was Clinton's first stop on a trip centered around the 50th anniversary ceremonies marking the D-Day invasion of France.