Pope calls on US to resolve conflicts diplomatically
The pope did not publicly mention the conflict in Iraq, an issue that has been a source of disagreement with President George W Bush.
Washington -- Pope Benedict XVI on Wednesday during his first visit to the White House called on the United States to diplomatically resolve conflicts abroad, saying Americans have historically demonstrated a firm commitment to promoting freedom throughout the world and meeting humanitarian needs.
"I am confident that this concern for the greater human family will continue to find expression in support for the patient efforts of international diplomacy to resolve conflicts and promote progress," said Benedict, who was speaking in English.
The pope did not publicly mention the conflict in Iraq, an issue that has been a source of disagreement with President George W Bush, but the matter was discussed at their private meeting after the reception.
Benedict, who was celebrating his 81st birthday, also expressed hope that his visit to the United States will revive faith in Catholicism, which has been plagued with hundreds of cases of child sexual abuse by the clergy. On his flight to the United States Tuesday, the pope told reporters he was "deeply ashamed" over the scandal.
Benedict addressed an estimated 10,000 guests - the largest ever at the Bush White House -- on the steps facing the building's south lawn. During his six-day visit, the pope will conduct mass in baseball stadiums in Washington and New York.
"I trust that my presence will be a source of renewal and hope for the Church in the United States, and strengthen the resolve of Catholics to contribute ever more responsibly to the life of this nation," Benedict said.
After the ceremony, Benedict and Bush, who is a Protestant and member of the Methodist church but has close ties to the Catholic community, retreated to the Oval Office for their private talks.
Benedict has criticized Bush for the invasion of Iraq and for the president's support for the death penalty, whose advocates struck a victory with a Supreme Court decision that coincided almost to the minute with the pope's arrival at the White House.
The court approved the controversial use of lethal injections, lifting a hold many states had put on executions.
During the private meeting, Benedict and Bush touched on a broad range of topics including Iraq, terrorism and immigration, the White House and Holy See said in a joint statement.
In devoting "considerable time" to the Middle East, the discussion touched on "resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict in line with the vision of two states living side-by-side in peace and security, their mutual support for the sovereignty and independence of Lebanon, and their common concern for the situation in Iraq and particularly the precarious state of Christian communities there and elsewhere in the region," the statement said.
Benedict also praised Bush for his commitment to fighting poverty and disease in Africa, and the men rejected terrorism and "the manipulation of religion to justify immoral and violent acts against innocents."
The pope also addressed the need for a coordinated immigration policy with regard to the influx of immigrants, many of them Catholic, from Latin America.
In Bush's opening remarks, he affirmed America's commitment to freedom of religion while also saying the pope had a role in the world to spread the word of God and to counter religious extremism and terrorism.
"In a world where some invoke the name of God to justify acts of terror and murder and hate, we need your message that God is love," Bush said. "And embracing this love is the surest way to save men from falling prey to the teaching of fanaticism and terrorism."
The ceremony on a sunny spring day opened with a rendition of the national anthem and patriotic music by the military's Fife-and-Drum Corps that dates back to the US war of independence. Afterwards, the crowd erupted into a spontaneous singing of "Happy Birthday" to Benedict.
Later, a choir formally sang to celebrate the pope's birthday.
Benedict took on the issue of the sexual abuse scandal even before landing Tuesday, telling reporters onboard his flight that he will work to ensure that the church does not employ priests who pose a sexual abuse risk to children and to heal relations with previous victims.
After meeting with Bush, Benedict traveled along legendary Pennsylvania Avenue sealed in the "popemobile," waving to the thousands of people who lined the street hoping to catch a glimpse of the pontiff.
They waved banners with words of welcome in English, Spanish and his native German, and some wore T-shirts bearing his picture. They cheered enthusiastically as Benedict slowly made his way by under heavy security.
Young people danced and sang as they waited for the pontiff to pass by, and large groups of Hispanics chanted in Spanish and sang hymns accompanied by guitars. School children were a strong presence in the crowd.
The effusive welcome came despite harsh criticism of the church in the wake of the priest sexual abuse scandal. But a small group of protestors brought attention to the issue, gathering outside the White House proclaiming "celibacy has failed" and accusing all priests of being child abusers.
Those gathered to cheer Benedict hoped his visit would help to heal the wounds of abuse and revive the church.
Christina Banks, 31, had brought her two pre-school-age children in from Stafford, Virginia, for the occasion.
"For the Catholic church, it will mean first of all that we will experience more healing from the scandals," she said of the visit.
Later Wednesday, Benedict will hold vespers and address US bishops. Observers expect the abuse to be among the topics of discussion.
Benedict is to celebrate mass Thursday at the Nationals baseball stadium, and travel to New York Friday to give a speech to the United Nations before mass in fabled Yankee Stadium on Sunday. Benedict said he hoped his appearance would strengthen the United Nations.
"I hope to encourage the efforts under way to make that institution an ever-more-effective voice for the legitimate aspirations of all the world's peoples," Benedict said.
The White House played down any disappointment over Benedict's plans to not attend a formal dinner with Bush Wednesday evening, saying the president was looking forward to dining with a host of Catholic leaders attending the event.
"We did not blink an eye over that," spokeswoman Dana Perino said.