Pope speaks of his love for the Irish

 Pope John Paul II spoke of his "deep affection for the Irish people" and said Ireland has an "essential role" to play in affirming Christian identity in the soon to be enlarged European Union. The comments were made as the 83 year old pontiff welcomed Irish President Mary McAleese to the Vatican yesterday. In remarks that will be seen as fuelling the debate surrounding the inclusion of Christian references in the proposed European Union constitution, John Paul told McAleese: "Ireland, with its rich Christian history and its outstanding patrimony of spiritual and cultural values, has an essential role to play in the building of the new Europe and the affirmation of its deepest identity." The Vatican has been battling for the Europe's Christian roots to be referred to in the new EU constitution. But the move is opposed by a number of countries, including Turkey, which looks likely to become a member in the near future and whose population is predominantly Muslim. The Pope presented the president with a bronze of the Madonna and Child as a gift for the Irish people. In return, McAleese gave the Pope a chalice and a book commemorating his visit to Ireland in 1979.