France's President Francois Hollande attends a joint news conference with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (not pictured) at the Elysee Palace in Paris September 19, 2014(Photo:Reuters)
Pope Francis on Wednesday granted French President Francois Hollande a private audience, three weeks after Islamist militants killed an elderly French priest by slitting his throat in front of worshippers.
Hollande, accompanied by Interior Minister Bernard Cazenueuve, flew into Rome against the backdrop of a mounting row over moves by French seaside towns to ban burkinis, an issue he described as "not for today."
Speaking after a pre-audience visit to the St Luigi dei Francesi(Saint-Louis-des-Francais), France's national church in the Italian capital, Hollande said that was not what he had come to talk about.
"I want to discuss religious freedom, secularism and unity with respect for everyone," said Hollande, who has clashed in the past with the Vatican over gay rights issues.
"French secularism's message is one which unites, not one that wounds," he said. "The Republic must defend the right to believe and also to not believe.
"When a religious figure is assassinated, the Republic is also profaned."
Hollande's gay marriage legislation was fervently attacked by the Church and a diplomatic stand-off over the Church's refusal to accept an openly gay man as France's ambassador to the Holy See was only recently resolved.
But Hollande said France had been very grateful for the Pope's solidarity following the killing of 85-year-old priest Jacques Hamel by two teenagers claiming allegiance to the Islamic State group.
"The pope's worlds were very comforting," Hollande said. "He confided in me that he felt like a brother at the side of the French people."
Francis and Hollande spoke by telephone hours after Hamel's murder while he was celebrating mass at his church in a town near Rouen -- Hollande's birthplace -- on July 26.
The following day, the pope said of Hamel: "This holy priest who died in the moment of offering prayers for the church is one (victim). But how many Christians, innocents, children?"
Adel Kermiche and Abdel Malik Petitjean slit Hamel's throat in front of a small group of worshippers before both were shot dead by police.
The attack, the first committed in the name of IS against a church in the West, came less than a fortnight after a jihadist drove a 19-tonne truck into a crowd celebrating Bastille Day on the seafront in the French coastal resort of Nice, killing 85 people and wounding more than 400.
It was Hollande's second visit to the Vatican as president. His first trip was in January 2014.
Aides to the Socialist leader have said the latest trip will mark a "tightening of ties". Observers in France say Hollande is also anxious to shore up support amongst Catholic voters ahead of next year's presidential election.