New Spanish king, queen to make debut visit to Vatican

MADRID - Spain's new King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia will visit Pope Francis at the Vatican on June 30 on their first foreign trip since taking the throne, the government said Friday.

Felipe, 46, a former Olympic yachtsman, and his wife 41-year-old Letizia were proclaimed king and queen Thursday in a relatively modest ceremony to which no foreign leaders or royals were invited.

Setting out their first engagements, palace officials said the couple, who have two daughters - seven-year-old Sofia and eight-year-old Leonor - will soon visit other parts of Spain and destinations abroad.

"The king and queen have a very busy international agenda, the Vatican first," Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo told public television channel TVE.

Their first domestic trip will be to Catalonia, a highly symbolic visit with the region engaged in a tug-of-war with Madrid over an independence referendum.

The couple will attend an awards ceremony in the city of Girona, north of Barcelona, next week, according to the king's official diary.

The regional government said the visit was planned before the king's inauguration, but with political leaders in the region calling for a vote on independence from Spain in November, the timing is delicate.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has vowed to block the referendum, saying it flouts the constitution.

The new king - who also speaks the regional language Catalan - declared soon after taking the throne his "faith in the unity of Spain".

On the international stage, a spokesman for the palace told AFP separately that the Vatican visit was scheduled for June 30, and that the couple will then head to Morocco on July 7 and Portugal on July 14, before visiting France, the spokesman said.

Garcia-Margallo said Felipe would attend the United Nations general assembly in New York in September where he would play a "prominent role".

Felipe will set out Spain's international policy and seek votes for the country's candidature for a seat on the UN Security Council in 2015-16, he added. Spain is vying against New Zealand and Turkey for one of the two temporary Security Council seats.

While in New York, Felipe will have a first chance as king to meet President Barack Obama. The US leader sent a message Thursday congratulating the king on his investiture and said he looked forward to working closely with him.

The Vatican trip will be the couple's first foreign visit as king and queen following Felipe's swearing-in on Thursday, but not their first audience with Pope Francis, whose investiture they attended in March last year.

They had an audience with the late Pope Jean Paul II in 2004 for a blessing shortly after their marriage, and another with his successor Benedict XVI in 2011.

Spain is historically a Roman Catholic country, but Felipe broke with tradition by not having a religious ceremony to mark his swearing-in.