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After kissing, Pope and Argentine Milei meet amid rumors Francis may finally return home

ROME (AP) — Despite their difficult start, Argentine President Javier Milei and Pope Francis appear to have hit it off during their first meeting on Monday, amid speculation that the Argentine pontiff may finally return home for a visit later this year.

The Vatican said the two men met for an hour and 10 minutes, an unusually long audience by Francis’ standards, especially since no translation was required. Video from the Vatican shows a smiling Francis briefly grabbing Milei’s arm for support as they walked toward his office at the start of their meeting.

Milei, who once called the pope a “fool,” treated Francis to some of his favorite Argentinian dulce de leche alfajor and lemon cookies. Francis presented him with the documents of his papacy and a medallion.

“One of the things I understood, among other things, is that the pope is the Argentine who is the most important person in the country,” Milei said in an interview broadcast Monday by Italian channel Retequattro.

A warm tone was already set the day before, when Milei kissed Francis with a bear hug at the end of a mass to declare Argentina’s first saint. A beaming pope joked: “You cut your hair!” »

Milei’s office posted photos of the hug on X and wrote: “God bless the Argentines and may the forces of heaven be with us.” »

It was not always this way. Milei, a self-proclaimed libertarian and anarcho-capitalist who promises a wave of austerity measures to revive the Argentine economy, called Francis an “imbecile” during the electoral campaign that brought him to power. He called Francis “the representative of malignity on Earth.”

Francis, who also lamented Argentina’s prolonged economic crisis, appears to have forgiven him and dismissed the criticism as mere campaign rhetoric.

Milei said this in her interview with Retequattro. Describing himself as a Catholic who also practices Jewish rituals, he said he now understands that Francis is the leader of the world’s Catholics and represents an important institution in a largely Catholic country like Argentina.

“As a result, I had to reconsider certain positions, and from that moment we began to build a positive relationship,” Milei was quoted as saying, according to excerpts from the interview.

Just last month, the 87-year-old pontiff reiterated his hope to visit Argentina later this year for the first time since his election in 2013. His absence from his country for ten years, despite his visits to the neighboring countries like Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay and Chile during his pontificate, disconcerted Argentines and others.

Milei invited Francis to visit him, and the country’s bishops also insisted that he finally return home.

The Vatican made no mention of a possible visit in a statement released after the meeting. The statement, which focuses solely on Milei’s subsequent meeting with the Vatican secretary of state, said those discussions focused on the government’s “program to counter the economic crisis” as well as unspecified international conflicts.

Later on Monday, Milei met Giorgia Meloni, Italian Prime Minister and President Sergio Mattarella. Meloni wrote on X, formerly Twitter, that they discussed strengthening economic ties in the energy, infrastructure and agribusiness sectors.

Milei had reason to be happy to enter the audience. During the night, Israeli forces freed two hostages of Argentine nationality who had been kidnapped by Hamas on October 7. Milei arrived in Rome last Friday after a visit to Israel where he spent time with the Argentine community.

In a post on X, his office thanked Israeli forces for the rescue.

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