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Francis to visit White House

WASHINGTON—President Barack Obama will host Pope Francis at the White House for the first time Wednesday [Thursday in Manila], 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.

Obama 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 raise 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.

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