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Obama to offer pope heartfelt White House welcome

23 September 2015, 15:32

Washington - President Barack Obama will host Pope Francis at the White House for the first time Wednesday, warmly embracing the Catholic pontiff seen as both a moral authority and potent political ally.

The packed and bedecked South Lawn will echo to strains of the Pontifical Anthem and a thundering 21-gun salute, as the 78-year-old is afforded a full ceremonial welcome on his historic maiden visit to the United States.

Washington -- a city that ordinarily shrugs its shoulders when presidents, queens and sheikhs roll through town -- has been enveloped in Pope-mania and so has the White House.

By early Wednesday, people were already streaming into the city.

Katherine Gorman, who was on the metro at 5 am (0900 GMT), said such an opportunity comes only "once in a lifetime."

"Benedict was more strict. Francis is for the people," the 47-year-old grandmother told AFP.

Obama himself made an exceedingly rare trip to the airport to meet the Argentine's plane Tuesday, bringing his wife, daughters, Vice President Joe Biden and his extended family to underscore the point.

The effusive greeting is part protocol, part politics -- reflecting common ground between the protestant president and the Jesuit pope on a gamut of issues from climate change, to inequality, to immigration, to US engagement with Cuba.

The visit is a political mirror of Pope Benedict's 2008 visit to George W. Bush's White House. Those two men were as conservative as their current successors are progressive.

Still, the White House is desperate to avoid suggestions it is co-opting a holy man revered by America's roughly 70 million Catholics to batter Republican foes in Congress.

"The goal of this meeting is to give the two men the opportunity to talk about their shared values," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.

"There'll be time for politics, frankly, the other 364 days of the year," he said.

"At least for that one meeting, it will be an opportunity for the president to put politics aside and have an opportunity to talk about the values that he and the pope have in common."

Francis has signaled he is also unlikely to wade directly into America's bitterly fought politics.

The Vatican played a crucial role in brokering talks between Havana and Washington that led to the recent restoration of diplomatic ties after more than half a century.

Before leaving Cuba on Tuesday, Francis urged Cubans "to build bridges, break down walls, sow seeds of reconciliation," in comments that appeared to allude to the nascent reconciliation across the Florida Straits.

But the pope also told reporters that he would not specifically bring up Washington's embargo of Cuba in his speech Thursday before American lawmakers who largely favor taking a tough line with Havana.

"The Holy See is against this embargo, but it is against all embargoes," he said.

Yet there is no mistaking the value of enlisting a popular pope's moral authority and offering him America's largest political platform.

Even the half of Americans who hold an unfavorable view of the Catholic Church like Pope Francis, according to a recent Washington Post-ABC poll.

Francis will make two key speeches during his US visit, the address to Congress and another to the United Nations on Friday.

Topics will include critiques of the dominance of finance and technology; a condemnation of world powers over the conflicts gripping the planet; appeals to protect and welcome immigrants; and climate change, according to Vatican sources.

For Barry Stohlman, 48, the pope's June encyclical on the environment calling for world action on global warming "is introducing a new understanding and appreciation for the world that we live in."

"The new pope is fantastic. I am anxious to see what he has to say to the American people," Stohlman said, making his way through Washington on the metro early Wednesday.

The pope's agenda tracks so closely with Obama's efforts to introduce immigration reform, as well as domestic and international limits on carbon emissions, that Republicans are already crying foul.

Congressman Paul Gosar, who is Catholic, declared he would boycott the pontiff's historic address to Congress to protest his "leftist" views.

During the historic six-day trip to the spiritual home of capitalism Francis will also preside over an inter-faith ceremony at Ground Zero, visit a Harlem Catholic school and greet crowds on a procession through Central Park.

He will wrap up his trip Saturday and Sunday in Philadelphia at an international festival of Catholic families.

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