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Friday, January 8, 1999 Published at 10:59 GMT

World: Europe

Atheist's audience with the Pope

Massimo D'Alema: Confirmed atheist

By Rome Correspondent Orla Guerin

Orla Guerin in Rome: "It's being seen as a significant footnote to history"
An historic meeting has taken place in the Vatican between the Pope and Italy's Prime Minister, Massimo D'Alema.

The Italian premier is a former Communist, the first to head a government in Western Europe, and a confirmed atheist.

[ image: Pope John Paul II: One of Communism's most powerful opponents]
Pope John Paul II: One of Communism's most powerful opponents
The audience brought together one of Communism's most powerful opponents, Pope John Paul, with one of its most faithful disciples.

The meeting is a testament to the normalised relations between the Roman Catholic church and its former Communist rivals after the tensions of the past.

It is being seen in Italy as a significant footnote to history.

According to one leading Italian newspaper, it is a sign that the Cold War is now really at an end after 50 long years.

Moving with the times

In 1949, Pope Pius XII excommunicated Communist Party members and their supporters and for years afterwards the church tried to curtail the influence of the Italian Communist Party, which was the most powerful in Europe.

Massimo D'Alema is steeped in old-style Communist tradition, the son of party members who were themselves excommunicated.

But he moved with the times. In 1991, it was D'Alema who led the way in reshaping the Italian Communist party into a new Social Democratic grouping, the left-wing Democrats.

The prime minister recently acknowledged the role played by Pope John Paul in the downfall of the Communist system.

He said the Pope was right about the spiritual void in countries governed by Communist parties and he is paid tribute to him as one of the greatest personalities at the close of the century.

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