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Obama praises Pope Francis’ ‘great moral authority’

US President Barack Obama praised Pope Francis’ moral leadership in an interview published ahead of their first-ever meeting during an official visit to Italy on Thursday.

The US leader is in Rome as part of a European trip that took him to the Netherlands and Belgium.

Obama is to have lunch with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano and meet with Prime Minister Matteo Renzi after his visit to the Vatican.

His itinerary also includes a tour of the Colosseum and talks with US diplomats and UN officials.

“The Holy Father has inspired people from all over the world, including me, with his commitment to social justice and his message of love and compassion, especially for the poorer and most vulnerable people among us,’’ Obama told Italy’s Corriere della Sera newspaper.

“Given his great moral authority, we know that when the pope speaks, his words carry an enormous weight.’’

Obama said global inequalities would be one of the main thrust of his audience with the Argentine-born Catholic Church leader.

Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, tensions over Ukraine and the war in Syria were also expected to be on the agenda.

Vatican Radio said the pope would talk about the Central African Republic, after meeting on Wednesday with religious leaders from the war-ravaged nation.

Ben Rhodes, Obama’s national security spokesman, told reporters the meeting would have an opportunity for them to get to know each other personally.

According to the spokesman, this would help the president to hear from the pope about what he is trying to do around the world.

US bishops have clashed with the Obama administration over its healthcare reform, which provides public funding for abortion and family planning.

Obama’s visit to the Vatican could help mend relations between the two sides.

US ambassador to the Holy See Ken Hackett last week told the Religion News Service: “I don’t believe the pope and president will be arguing about why the church doesn’t change its position on abortion, because it ain’t going to happen.”

Obama is scheduled to depart for Saudi Arabia on Friday.

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