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Pope irked Merkel with 'barren' Europe comment

February 9, 2016

Pope Francis said he received an angry 2014 phone call from Christian Democrat Merkel after comparing Europe to a "barren woman." Germany has one of the world's lowest birth rates, as fertility rates decline in Europe.

Angela Merkel and Pope Francis
Image: Imago/Zuma Press

In an interview with Italian daily newspaper "Corriere della Sera," Pope Francis said he had received an agitated phone call from German Chancellor Angela Merkel in response to a speech he gave at the European Parliament back in November 2014. In his original speech, the pontiff had referred to Europe as "haggard," adding the continent resembled "a 'grandmother', no longer fertile and vibrant."

"She was a bit angry because I had compared Europe to a barren woman, incapable of producing children," Francis explained, saying that his outlook on Europe's future was in no way pessimistic.

"She asked me if I really thought Europe could no longer make children. I told her yes it can, and many, because Europe has strong and deep roots," he said.

"In the darkest moments, [Europe] has always shown itself to have unexpected resources."

Some worrying statistics

According to the World Bank, Germany's fertility rate dipped from 2.37 births per woman in 1960 to 1.38 in 2012. Since the mid-1970s, the fertility rate has consistently stayed below 1.5 children per woman.

Neighboring countries France and Belgium have witnessed similar declines over the years - although both countries remain far closer to a fertility rate of 2, the approximate "break even" point. The US and UK also have fertility rates of around 2.

Germany's median age is now the second oldest in the world, after Japan, at 46.1 years, largely on account of the low fertility rate and increased life expectancy. Such demographic changes pose social challenges for the future, including the funding of state pensions and filling junior positions in key industries.

Infografics: birth rate Germany 2010 - 2014

Comments on Russia

Ahead of a key meeting with the Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church, to take place on Friday in Cuba, Francis also explained in the interview why he wanted to forge closer ties between the two churches. The meeting will be the first between the heads of the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches since the 11th Century.

"You have to build bridges, step by step," he said. "Up to the point where you can shake the hand of the person on the other side."

The Argentine native born Jorge Mario Bergoglio also mentioned that he believed Russia could make a significant contribution towards world peace, emphasizing that the Vatican and Moscow's views had repeatedly converged over recent conflicts in the Middle East.

"Russia has a lot to give," he added.

ss/msh (AFP, KNA)