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U.S. President Obama to visit Pope Francis in March

Both 'share commitment to fighting poverty and inequality'

21 January, 19:37
U.S. President Obama to visit Pope Francis in March (By Stefania Fumo) (ANSA) - Vatican City, January 21 - President Barack Obama will meet Pope Francis for the first time at the Vatican on March 27, the White House said Tuesday.

Vatican Spokesman Father Federico Lombardi confirmed that the pope will have an audience with Obama that day.

Obama will also have talks in Rome with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano and Premier Enrico Letta.

A White House statement said Obama "looks forward to discussing with Pope Francis their shared commitment to fighting poverty and growing inequality".

The visit to the Italian capital will take place as part of a trip to Europe by Obama that begins on March 24 in The Hague for a nuclear security summit hosted by the Dutch government. This will be followed by a US-European Union summit with European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission President José Manuel Barroso in Brussels on March 26.

The US president will also meet with Belgian leaders and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

Obama's presidency has been marked by some high-profile clashes with the Catholic Church, including over sexual and reproductive rights. But Francis' approach to world economic issues is seen as more in line with Obama's thinking than that of the previous pope Benedict, who stepped down in February 2013.

In an interview last year, Obama called Francis an "extraordinarily thoughtful and soulful messenger of peace and justice".

"I haven't had a chance to meet him yet", Obama said then. "But everything that I've read, everything that I've seen from him, indicates the degree to which he is trying to remind us of those core obligations". In what was his first major manifesto since becoming pope in March 2013, Francis in November called for a renewed focus on the poor and criticized what he said was the tyranny of markets that excludes too many people.

In his 50,000-word document titled Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) the pope wrote that charity "means working to eliminate the structural causes of poverty and to promote the integral development of the poor". "This means education, access to health care, and above all employment, for it is through free, creative, participatory and mutually supportive labor that human beings express and enhance the dignity of their lives".

His words echo those spoken by Obama a year earlier, when the president announced a new campaign to reduce chronic hunger and lift 50 million people in Africa out of poverty within a decade. "The whole purpose of development is to create the conditions where assistance is no longer needed, where people have the dignity and the pride of being self-sufficient," the US president said in 2012. Obama, who has made fighting rising inequality the domestic priority for the remainder of his second term in office, praised the pope's stance on inequality in a major economic address in December. "Across the developed world, inequality has increased", Obama said, and then quoted from Pope Francis. "Some of you may have seen just last week, the pope himself spoke about this at eloquent length: 'How can it be,' he wrote, 'that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?'," said Obama. Eradicating world hunger, reducing waste and ensuring long-term food security are also themes close to the pope's heart as well as the president's. "It is intolerable that thousands of people die of starvation every day, when massive amounts of food are available that often simply go to waste," Francis said in a message Tuesday to global leaders gathering at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos.

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